Food safety needs international co-operation
Our correspondent, who writes under the name Future of our Children, explains that the European Food Safety Authority is one of the 40 or so decentralised agencies of the European Union that do much to improve our welfare and to assure the smooth conduct of our relations with the other 27 EU member states. If Britain leaves the EU and the single market it will not be able to stay a member of these agencies but will almost certainly have to conform with their regulatory regimes if it seeks to enter, as a third party, into a new trade deal with Europe. The UK would have to pay for the services provided but would have no say on their management.
My wife and I try to produce almost all the vegetables that we eat. We would like to do the same with fruit but have not yet succeeded, partly because we squeeze fresh oranges every day for breakfast, and oranges won’t grow here. As any gardener knows, small-scale food production requires a lot of manual work. However, it gives us considerable satisfaction and cuts our shopping bill. More importantly, it helps us to reduce the amount of pesticide that we eat. Like so many other people, we are increasingly concerned about the potential impact of consuming pesticide residues in foods on our health and longevity, as well as the dangers posed by pesticides to insect and bird populations and to biodiversity
We, therefore, think that one of the most important functions of EFSA is to assess the safety of pesticides and to recommend to the European Commission whether they are suitable for their approval for use in food production. As anyone who has been following the neonicotinoids saga in recent years knows, EFSA’s advice is often controversial, pitting environmentalists and health practitioners against industrial-scale farmers and the makers of the products in question. Recently EFSA has toughened their opposition to unrestricted use of “neonics”, noting that there is convincing evidence that they are harmful to the health of bees, endangering the pollination processes that are so vital for the production of so many crops.
I have to admit that we worry that EFSA is unduly dependent on the reported results of trials conducted by pesticide manufacturers because it does not have the resources that would be required to carry out or sponsor the independent trials that are so badly needed to underpin robust conclusions on product safety. A further concern is that, while EFSA assesses the risks of specific products, it is only just beginning to look at the cumulative effects of the combined use of pesticides, some of which may be relatively harmless in their own right but could become more dangerous when used in combination or sequentially.
EFSA is one of the newer EU agencies, having been founded in 2002. Its headquarters are in Parma in Italy, the “home” of Parmesan cheese and Parma ham. It employs around 450 staff, about 10% of whom are Brutish, and runs on an annual budget of about Euro 80 million per year. It has the very broad mandate of providing the European Commission with scientific advice and risk assessments on all aspects of the food chain including food and feed safety, nutrition, animal health and welfare, plant protection and plant health. Its assessments are not confined simply to identifying risks to human health but also addressing farm animal health and environmental impacts.
To carry out its functions, EFSA works in very close collaboration with national institutions with similar mandates in each EU member country and it serves as a common point of reference for them. In the UK, its main links are with FERA Science Ltd (GB), the former Food and Environmental Research Agency (FERA), now run jointly by DEFRA and a private sector services provider (Capita). EFSA’s partner on plant health is Crop Health and Protection (CHAP).
The food industry is now enormously international, providing consumers with a wide array of choices of fresh fruit and vegetables drawn from all corners of the earth. Often processed foods contain ingredients coming from many different countries: they may be manufactured in yet another country and distributed in several others. This makes tracing foods back to their original producers extremely complex, and it also provides a fertile breeding ground for food fraud. This is well illustrated by the 2013 horse meat scandal which was first detected in Ireland and then surfaced in Britain, just as FERA’s inspection capacity was being cut back as part of the government’s moves towards de-regulation. The lead responsibility for following up the adulteration of beef products with horse meat across Europe was assigned to Interpol rather than to EFSA as it was perceived as a result of criminal activity rather than as a threat to food safety. It eventually led to investigations across 19 countries and to several arrests.
One of the strongest arguments for Britain to remain in EFSA is that so many of the threats to food safety have cross-border dimensions which are magnified by the increasing movement of people and goods. This was very evident in the case of mad cow disease (Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy) which was first identified in Britain in the 1980s and found to pass to humans who had consumed meat from infected animals. Eventually it led to the slaughter of 4.4 million cattle and over 150 human deaths. Economic costs, driven by a shrinkage of 40% in domestic beef consumption and a ban on beef exports to Europe (only lifted in 2006), amounted to over £900 million. Since its foundation EFSA has been monitoring the risks posed by BSE and advising on ways of minimising the danger of fresh outbreaks.
Another major threat to human health comes from food affected by bacteria such as Salmonella and Listeria. There have been several recent cases of multi-country outbreaks of Salmonella originating in eggs and egg products that have crossed national borders. One of the widest ranging outbreaks came to light in May 2016, peaked in September that year and was brought fully under control in February 2017. It affected more than half the EU member countries. Including the UK, as well as Norway. Genome analysis-based detection by EFSA and the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention traced the origins to a farm of egg-laying hens in Poland. All member countries are committed to posting notifications of such outbreaks on EFSA’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed, so as to enable immediate sharing of information between countries and across the food system.
Until a few months ago I suspect few people in the UK had ever heard of chlorinated chicken. It has come to light because it is a food product which is allowed in the US but is banned in Europe by EFSA on animal welfare grounds because dousing slaughtered chickens with chlorine allows American farmers to engage in very high-density production systems in which infections thrive. It is significant for the Brexit process because, if Britain leaves the EU customs union, it may be tempted to lower its food standards in order to make an independent trade deal with the US.
If Britain has to renounce its membership of EFSA, it will cease to have a say in setting its policies and British staff would lose their positions. It is only by retaining its membership that the UK would be able to influence the shape of policies to address the many emerging challenges facing EFSA, such as those relating to antibiotic resistance in humans because of excess use of antibiotics in animal feeds; the risks inherent in the growing use of nano-technology in processed foods, or new concerns over heavy metal accumulation in fish. Experience shows that there is bound to be a continual flow of such new issues that demand work by EFSA
Perhaps, if Britain’s continued membership of EFSA would help to strengthen its capacity for conducting research that is fully independent of industrial interests, we would feel less obliged to grow our own food, confident that all products approved by EFSA would truly safe nutritionally.