Food Law News - EU - 2003

EP News Report, 20 February 2003

CONTAMINANTS - Food safety: heated debate on nitrofurans in Environment Committee

Commissioner David BYRNE defended the Commission's policy on imported fishery and poultry products when MEPs accused him on Wednesday of reacting too weakly to the risks posed by nitrofurans - a form of antibiotic - found in imported food from developing countries including Thailand, Vietnam and Brazil. Members of the EP Environment and Public Health Committee questioned the Commission's decision to lift the ban on Vietnamese poultry and shrimps without sending a scientific delegation to Vietnam to investigate the situation. They pointed out that rapid alert notifications among EU Member States had risen considerably in recent years. In 2002 around 480 cases were linked to imported shrimps alone. MEPs also reminded the Food Safety Commissioner that, as carcinogenic chemicals, nitrofurans are banned in food-producing animals in most countries in the world.

However, Members showed understanding for Mr Byrne's remarks about the conditions most developing countries face in food production and international trade. He said that in Bangladesh for example shrimps were the second largest export and a strict ban would have major consequences for the economy. Turning to Vietnam, he told the committee that close co-operation on improving food quality testing between the Vietnamese and Dutch food authorities had led to the Commission's decision to lift the total ban on Vietnamese shrimps. MEPs for their part rejected any accusation that they might be creating precautionary health barriers for protectionist reasons. They welcomed the Commission's plans to work closely with developing countries to improve food quality testing.

Mr Byrne also pointed out that improved testing could itself be the main reason for the growing number of alerts. After a new test has been in use for one year the accuracy of detecting nitrofuran residues is 15 times greater than a year previously - and the EU has the strictest testing in use in the world. He rejected accusations that the Commission had been slow to act and emphasised that he always based his judgements on scientific advice from Commission staff and the Scientific Committee on Food. He also told the committee that all food imports to the EU from certain countries were tested, while imports from some other countries were still completely banned. The Commission was taking action but in a proportionate manner based on scientific data - the panic button did not have to be hit in every single case.

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