Food Law News - EU - 2000

2 February 2000: PRECAUTIONARY PRINCIPLE - Commission adopts Communication on Precautionary Principle

Commission Press Release (IP/00/96), 2 February 2000

Commission adopts Communication on Precautionary Principle

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The European Commission has today adopted a Communication on the use of the precautionary principle. The objective of the Communication is to inform all interested parties how the Commission intends to apply the principle and to establish guidelines for its application. The aim is also to provide input to the on-going debate on this issue both at EU and international level. The Communication underlines that the precautionary principle forms part of a structured approach to the analysis of risk, as well as being relevant to risk management. It covers cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU. Today's Communication complements the recently adopted White Paper on Food Safety and the agreement reached in Montreal this week-end on the Cartagena Protocol on Bio-safety.

The Communication also qualifies the measures that may be taken under the precautionary principle. Where action is deemed necessary, measures should be proportionate to the chosen level of protection, non-discriminatory in their application and consistent with similar measures already taken. They should also be based on an examination of the potential benefits and costs of action or lack of action and subject to review in the light of new scientific data and should thus be maintained as long as the scientific data remain incomplete, imprecise or inconclusive and as long as the risk is considered too high to be imposed on society. Finally, they may assign responsibility or the burden of proof - for producing the scientific evidence necessary for a comprehensive risk assessment. These guidelines guard against unwarranted recourse to the precautionary principle as a disguised form of protectionism.

Today's Communication was presented to the Commission by Mr Erkki Liikanen, Enterprise and the Information Society Commissioner, Mr David Byrne, Health and Consumer Protection Commissioner, and Ms Margot Wallström, Environment Commissioner. It is a follow-up to President Romano Prodi's speech to the European Parliament on 5 October 1999.

The Communication recalls that a number of recent events have undermined the confidence of public opinion and consumers because decisions or absence of decisions were not supported by full scientific evidence and the legitimacy of such decisions was questionable.

The Commission has consistently striven to achieve a high level of protection, inter alia in the environmental and human, animal and plant health fields. It is the Commission's policy to take decisions aimed to achieve this high level of protection on a sound and sufficient scientific basis. However, where there are reasonable grounds for concern that potential hazards may affect the environment or human, animal or plant health, and when at the same time the lack of scientific information precludes a detailed scientific evaluation, the precautionary principle has been the politically accepted risk management strategy in several fields. Although the precautionary principle is not explicitly mentioned in the EC Treaty except in the environment field, the Commission considers that this principle has a scope far wider than the environment field and that it also covers the protection of human, animal and plant health.

The Communication makes it clear that the precautionary principle is neither a politicisation of science or the acceptance of zero-risk but that it provides a basis for action when science is unable to give a clear answer. The Communication also makes it clear that determining what is an acceptable level of risk for the EU is a political responsibility. It provides a reasoned and structured framework for action in the face of scientific uncertainty and shows that the precautionary principle is not a justification for ignoring scientific evidence and taking protectionist decisions.

The horizontal guidelines established in this Communication will provide a useful tool in the future for taking political decisions in this regard and will contribute to legitimate decisions taken when science is unable to assess completely the risk rather than decisions based on irrational fears or perceptions. Thus, one of the objectives of the Communication is to clearly describe the situations in which the precautionary principle could be applied and determining the scope of measures taken in this respect. It will therefore help ensuring the proper functioning of the Internal Market as well as a high level of protection and predictability for consumers and economic operators located in the EU and elsewhere.

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