Food Law News - EU - 1999

26 October 1999: MEAT - Sewage Sludge

Commission (SPEECH/99/142), 26 October 1999

Sewage Sludge

Speaking Note for David BYRNE, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection talking to the European Parliament: Environment Committee

The issue of the use of sludge has attracted huge media attention over the past few days. This coverage might suggest that it is a new issue. It is not. The first reports appeared in the press in August. Along with dioxin, it was among the priority food safety issues on my desk when I started in this job on 15 September.

However, before entering into the detail of the actions taken by the Commission, it might be useful if I provide, without going too far into the legal technicalities, some background information.

Food processing and especially animal slaughtering facilities use very significant quantities of water. The treatment of this water or wastewaters - is an important process with very significant safety and environmental implications. Insofar as the current controversy is concerned, the issue is sludge.

Sludge is essentially the residue from the treatment of wastewaters. This residue can be removed through a number of processes. First, there is simple filtration which separates solids from liquids. Second, there are chemical and physical treatment processes to separate fats, grease and sediment from the water. Finally, there is a biological treatment process.

All these various treatment stages produce sludge. What is important from a food safety perspective is what happens to this sludge. Commission Decision 91/516, establishing a list of ingredients whose use in prohibited in compound feedingstuffs, includes sewage sludge in the annex of prohibited ingredients. The Commission position on the use of sludge is, therefore, clear: it must be prohibited from use in animal compound feedingstuffs. This means the residues from all three stages of treatment.

I hope that this brief background material on sludge is of use. I will now turn to the more substantive issue of the background to the present controversy.

Press reports on the use of sludge in animal feedingstuffs first came to the attention of the Commission in early August of this year. It quickly became clear from reports that there was a Community dimension to the problem. The Commission therefore contacted all Member States on 21 August reminding them that "sewage sludge" is included in the annex to Commission Decision 516/91. That is to say, its use in animal compound feedingstuffs is prohibited.

The issue was subsequently discussed in a number of meetings of the Standing Veterinary Committee and the Standing Committee on Feedingstuffs. It quickly became clear from these discussions that there was confusion in the Member States on the precise definition of sludge. I mentioned earlier the different treatment stages of wastewaters.

Essentially, Member States differed on which stage of treatment is banned. For some, it appears that only the residue from the final stage, after biological treatment, is banned. In order to obtain clarity on the issue, the Commission issued a detailed questionnaire to all Member States requesting comprehensive information on existing practices and definitions.

Member States have until the 31 October to answer this questionnaire. However, I am not waiting for their replies. This is too important an issue to hide behind a questionnaire.

At the Agriculture Council on 27 September my first Council I raised the issue of sludge even though it was not on the agenda. I did so for a number of reasons. One reason was to call on Ministers to respond quickly to the Commission's questionnaire to allow a rapid and useful discussion to take place on this important issue.

But even more importantly, I wanted to call on Ministers to ensure urgent action in addressing this issue. Let me read to you my exact words to the Council which, I might add, were extensively quoted in the media.

"I want to make clear that the principle of the prohibition of using sewage sludge in animal nutrition covers all possible residues obtained from the different steps in the wastewater purification treatment process. This applies irrespective of the origin of these wastewaters.

I therefore call on Member States to follow this approach. I cannot emphasise strongly enough the public shock and distaste at the use of the materials in question in animal feed production. It is another example of how practices have been allowed to develop without any thought being given to their impact on consumers".

I therefore made the Commission position very clear: the use of sludge, irrespective of the step of the treatment process, must stop. However, to ensure that there is no ambiguity, I am proposing to present a proposal shortly which will ensure that there is no confusion over definitions.

In effect, what I have in mind is an amendment to Commission decision 91/516 which would prohibit "all materials obtained from the various phases of the waste water treatment process, irrespective of any further processing of these materials and irrespective also of the origin of the waste waters".

If all goes to plan, this proposal could be presented to the Standing Committee on Animal Feedingstuffs on 8-9 November. I am confident that it would be supported, especially given the very strong denials by Member States that sludge irrespective of the definition is used in animal feeds.

I would also like to clarify a number of other important points. The issue of the threat to public health arising from the use of sludge has been raised. I am informed that the treatment standards for animal waste, set out in Directive 90/667 and Commission Decision 96/449, address this risk. Under this legislation, all animal waste must be subjected to very high temperatures and pressure to neutralise any potential infectivity.

However, this is not only an issue of safety. As I pointed out to the Agriculture Council, it is an unacceptable practice which must end. Consumers are horrified at the use of such materials in animal feed. If we are serious about addressing their concerns and I am then it has to be made very clear that sludge in animal feed is not going to be tolerated.

The issue of the report of the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office inspection in France also requires clarification. This inspection was carried out from 19-20 August. It resulted directly from the press reports on the use of sludge in animal feed. A number of important shortcomings came to light in the course of the inspection.

The publication of the Commission's inspection report is part of the normal process governing such inspections. This process includes its publication on the internet and its transmission to the European Parliament. Both measures are designed to ensure transparency. Discussions are ongoing with the French authorities on the reports implications. Its lessons for other Member States must also be brought to attention.

I have already been assured by the French authorities, notably the Agriculture Minister, M. Glavny at the Agriculture Council on 27 September that the shortcomings identified in the report have been firmly addressed. In this respect it is wrong to suggest that the French authorities have not taken their responsibilities seriously. This is not the case. They have co-operated fully with the Commission and I am very grateful for this co-operation.

Finally, I want to assure you that I will keep Parliament fully informed of developments. That has been and will continue to be my policy. I spoke at length about sludge in all my three previous meetings with Parliament to the Plenary Session with President Prodi on 5 October; to this Committee on 12 October; and to the Agriculture Committee on 19 October.

This is therefore our fourth opportunity in a period of only a few weeks to discuss the issue. This is a measure of how serious we are taking the issue. I now look forward to your views and will be happy to take your questions.

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