Another constant refrain was the need to involve consumers and their representatives in all aspects of the food production chain, including meetings of the independent scientific committees. Scientific data should be publicized without delay. Consumer confidence depended on consumer perception of risk rather than the actual risk as perceived by the experts, who might be less gloomy. However, it was largely agreed that there was no such thing as "zero risk". There was also a lot of support for the view that, as far as food was concerned, consumer interests should in future have precedence over producer interests and quality should come before quantity (even if this meant higher prices). Speakers generally welcomed the proposed extension of producer liability to cover farms and fisheries.
The situation at the epicentre of the crisis in the UK (where an export ban may be lifted soon) and in Portugal (where an export ban has just been imposed) was analysed. The scale of the crisis was illustrated by the fact that 2.35 million cattle have been slaughtered in the UK in accordance with arrangements laid down at the Florence European Council in June 1996. The fact that cases had not been reported in a country did not necessarily mean it was free of BSE. Concern was not limited to BSE either but also covered the use of antibiotics and genetically modified organisms in food production. Moreover, in the past ten years many more people had died from salmonella, e-coli and listeria than from BSE.
The conference attracted a capacity audience of 500, including food scientists, academics and representatives of consumer, farming and industry interests as well as members of the public, and there were 24 principal speakers, including Commission President Jacques SANTER and Commissioners Emma BONINO (consumer health protection) and Franz FISCHLER (agriculture). Parliament fielded Vice-President David MARTIN (PES, UK) and its two BSE rapporteurs, Mrs Dagmar ROTH-BEHRENDT (PES, D), for the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection, and Mr Reimer BÖGE (EPP,D), for the Agriculture Committee. Mrs Bonino introduced the Commission's second bi-annual BSE follow-up report. Mr Böge and Mrs Roth- Behrendt are to draw up a joint report in response to this before the parliamentary term ends next June.
Mr Ken COLLINS (PES,UK), Environment Committee chairman, opened and closed the conference, which was divided into four main sessions: (1) scientific advice and research; (2) the consequences for agricultural and food policy; (3) the consequences for consumer protection, control and food safety; and (4) implementation of the EP's recommendations and measures for the future.
Parliament's role in getting the BSE crisis taken seriously was widely acknowledged, including its threat to censure (and so dismiss) the Commission, which had galvanized that body into action. It was regretted that Parliament's demands in the early 1990s for Community measures to guarantee consumers clean and safe food had not been adequately heeded. The Commission, for its part, felt that it had risen to the challenge. The fight against BSE was being won: the annual incidence of BSE had fallen by 90% between 1992 and 1997. Mr SANTER commented: "The fruitful collaboration which has taken place between Parliament and Commission since February 1997 has made a big contribution to this encouraging outcome".
The Member States, by contrast, were severely criticized for obstruction and foot-dragging. Legal action has been started against 13 of the 15 Member States for violation of the Treaty in this connection. Even now Member States were holding up urgent measures proposed by the Commission to eliminate specified risk materials. Many speakers wanted monitoring and control measures taken out of the hands of the Member States and centralized, but this was impossible under current legislation.
Many calls were made for the setting up of a European Food Agency. There was also support for the view that the EU (as opposed to individual Member States) should join international standard- setting bodies such as the Codex Alimentarius. More research funding was demanded. A rapid test to detect the presence of the BSE agent in animals is expected to be available soon and the Commission is working on a definition of "the precautionary principle". Disappointment was expressed that the Amsterdam Treaty did not bring agriculture into the remit of codecision.