Mr Prodi then raised the possibility of setting up a food agency, an idea that has already been discussed at great length and something that is happening at a national level in some member states. A European Agency, he contended, could be modelled on the lines of the European Medicines Agency, which is responsible for reporting on the safety of new drugs, or perhaps the US Food and Drugs Administration, which has more far reaching powers. At the moment, Mr Prodi added, he did not have a firm view about this and felt that there should be extensive debate of the question. It was also important to take into account the international dimension.
The Commission's intention now, he said, was to issue a White Paper on food safety, concentrating on defining the "precautionary" principle. The aim would be to review existing food law, put forward proposals before the end of the year 2000 with a view to having a new body of legislation in place by 2002. He added a word of warning, "no food can ever be guaranteed totally safe". Consumers must realise this and that was why it was important that consumer bodies should be fully involved in the ongoing discussions.
In the ensuing debate, Karl-Heinz Florenz (D, EPP/ED) commented that moves on food policy only seemed to be happening whenever there was a new scandal. He wanted to know what action was being proposed with regard to liability and he asked where Council was for today's debate in view of the fact that a lot of the responsibility lay with the member states. Existing early warning systems were just not working, he added, commenting that a 1991 European directive designed to improve safety by listing substances that were safe had hardly been implemented, since only one substance had been named after six years of deliberations.
It was then the turn of Dagmar Roth-Behrendt (D, PES) to emphasise the need for bridging gaps in existing legislation and she suggested a number of ways in which this could be done. There could be a dioxin register, for example, she said, pointing out that it seemed a contradiction that different levels were tolerated in fish than was possible in meat. In addition, there should be stricter controls on the components of animal feed and a "rapid alert system" would improve the situation in enabling official bodies to react whenever there was a need. This should be coupled with improved monitoring, she added. As to the idea of a food agency, it was important to ensure that if such a body was set up, it was not subject to the pressure of industry and was able to take truly independent judgements to gain the confidence of the public. For the Liberals, Frédérique Ries (B, ELDR) drew attention to the swift action taken by the Belgian authorities to deal with the recent food scare, pointing out that the system of controls and checks introduced, enabled the Belgian beef ban to be lifted. At the same time, she emphasised the importance of other European member states showing solidarity with Belgian farmers who were in no way responsible for the events that had taken place. The conclusion was, she added, a need for strict controls on the food distribution system and an early warning system put into place. The EU could do more at a research level by involving its own bodies such as the research centre at Ispra, she said. For the Greens, Danielle Auroi (F) pointed out that consumers had lost faith with the food production industry as it is today and no longer believed that existing controls were sufficient. There was, she added, a need for a strict definition of the "precautionary" principle, clear labelling and checks on air and ground water.
Phillip Whitehead (East Midlands, PES) was particularly incensed about the use of sewage sludge in animal feed and the fact that no Commission official seemed able to come up with an explanation as to why this practice was still continuing. There was, he said, a need to act quickly where laws were being breached and to improve monitoring and inspection systems to check on possible new threats. Commenting on the idea of a food agency, he noted that similar doubts had been expressed when it was proposed to set up the Environment Agency. This new body, he added, could set a benchmark and play a vital role in reassuring consumer confidence. Mr Whitehead emphasised the need to be able to act quickly whenever there was a perceived threat and for improved procedures to tackle the dangers of new pollutants. It was also important, he emphasised, to formulate a common European strategy to take to the WTO, and to set specific targets to be agreed over a 3- year period, including a definition of how the "precautionary" principle would work.
David Bowe (Yorkshire and the Humber, PES) stressed the importance of effectively implementing and enforcing existing legislation. He believed that if this had been done in the past, the dioxin crisis would not have arisen. He was not sure if a food agency was the right way forward and questions remain about the nature and structure of such an agency. He was one of a number of speakers to stress the importance of it being accountable. He also noted that there was already confusion over who in the Commission was responsible for what in the realm of food safety. Ian Hudghton (Scotland, Greens/EFA) believed that it was right for public authorities and the EU to play a role in promoting food safety. He was also unhappy at the maintenance of the ban on British beef by an individual member state, arguing that this action was a "bitter blow" to Scotland's beef farmers. A similar point was taken up by Liz Lynne (West Midlands, ELDR) who also castigated the French government, noting that since 1996 there had been no cases of BSE in the eligible age group. She therefore called for the French ban to be lifted.
John Cushnahan (Munster, EPP/ED) welcomed the Commission's commitment to restoring consumer confidence in food and the announcement of a White Paper on EU food law. He believed that Commissioner Byrne should "go the extra mile" and establish an independent food agency along the US lines. This, he believed, would restore consumer confidence in food and the citizens' confidence in the EU. Pat the Cope Gallagher (Connacht/Ulster, UEN) too welcomed the Commission's undertakings and noted in particular the need for proper consultation of the fishing and aqua-culture industries, as well as having scientific testing of dioxin.
Commission President Romano Prodi promised that the White Paper would be ambitious and stressed the importance of establishing both democratic and technical control of any agency. The body would need to have both uniform and decentralised structures and he emphasised that Commissioner Byrne would have a coordinating role in respect of other Commissioners who were involved in this issue. Commissioner Byrne himself emphasised that the real objective was to achieve food safety as a pillar of EU policy. He was gratified by the House's favourable response to the announcement of a White Paper and he promised that all key areas would be examined, such as control of the food chain and the early warning system. Although the full shape of the proposed agency had not yet been realised, he underlined that it needed to be both fully independent and to have a sufficient level of accountability. The Commissioner then updated the House on his meeting with the Agriculture Council in the previous week. On the dioxin issue, he noted that tests in Belgium revealed that in 1% of cases, there was a small residue of dioxin which came from background industrial pollution. If this problem existed in Belgium, it was likely to also occur elsewhere and he wanted to see monitoring in other member states to assess the issue. Mr Byrne also noted that if there were still difficulties and ambiguities in current legislation dealing with sludge in foodstuffs, he would seek to resolve this. In conclusion, he promised that the health issue would be of primary importance in the EU's approach to international trade and its relationship with the WTO.