Monday, July 19, 2010

But you see, it is the EU that decides on food labelling

Periodically we get Conservative politicians and the Coalition government promising to do such things about food labelling though what they are they know not. For the sad fact is that food labelling has been EU competence for many years and a long unrolling "consolidation", which has produced, is producing and will produce many far-reaching EU Regulations has been negotiated for years by the Food Standards Agency (an unaccountable quango), which is also in charge of implementing those Regulations. And being Regulations they are directly applicable and do not require Parliamentary legislation.

It so happens that as the negotiations for the Food Standards Agency went on (history detailed here on the Agency's site) I was working with various small food producers, cheese makers and, especially, small and medium-sized slaughter houses and meat processors. The work, which resulted in a report on the meat industry and the threats it faced, published in 2000 by the Countryside Alliance, was two-fold: we aimed to clarify the problems and make people aware of them and to save small(ish) food producers. Our success rate on both counts was variable.

In the midst of it all the Food Standards Agency was being set up, ostensibly in response to various food safety crises in Britain but, more importantly, because it was known that the EU was setting up its own institution, the European Food Safety Authority.
EFSA’s remit covers food and feed safety, nutrition, animal health and welfare, plant protection and plant health. In all these fields, EFSA’s most critical commitment is to provide objective and independent science-based advice and clear communication grounded in the most up-to-date scientific information and knowledge.

EFSA’s goal is to become globally recognized as the European reference body for risk assessment on food and feed safety, animal health and welfare, nutrition, plant protection and plant health.

EFSA’s independent scientific advice underpins the European food safety system. Thanks to this system, European consumers are among the best protected and best informed in the world as regards risks in the food chain.
Just recently there was a good deal of rejoicing because the Coalition has announced that it might abolish the Food Standards Agency. There was an article in the Guardian that caused all that excitement and rejoicing and the subject came up in the House of Lords during a Starred Question asked by Lord Krebs, erstwhile Chairman of said organization, despite the fact that he is actually an ornithologist.

One can make several interesting comments in connection with both the article and the breif debate in the Lords. Firstly, there is no certainty that the FSA will be abolished; secondly, if it is the people who work in it will simply be parcelled out between various departments and will then, almost certainly, be seconded to a special unit, which will probably find itself in the already existing offices. This pattern, one suspects will be repeated in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

Thirdly, there is an assumption that as we have problems with people eating unhealthy food and, perhaps, with obesity, the existence of the Food Standards Agency is vital though, as it happens, no evidence is produced that the situation has, in any way, improved during that body's existence.

Fourthly, there is still a body of opinion out there that is convinced that the main purpose of all food producers is to poison its customers and only the wise and all-seeing government can prevent that dire outcome. Fifthly, and most importantly, no discussion of the FSA mentions the words European and Union, though everything it deals with is EU competence and, as long as we are in the EU there will have to be a body that will negotiate those laws and regulations and implement them. Incidentally, the FSA makes no secret of this and any journalist could have found out the truth by looking on the website.
The European Commission issued a proposal for a new Food Information Regulation on 4 February 2008. This proposal follows an EU-wide review of both general food and nutrition labelling legislation, which began in 2004.

The Food Standards Agency (FSA) has been representing the UK at Experts' Group meetings during the development of this proposal. Interested parties letters providing summaries of these meetings can be found at the links below.

The proposal will bring EU rules on general and nutrition labelling together into a single regulation which will simplify and consolidate existing labelling legislation. Eventually the regulation will be directly applicable in all Member States, and replace current UK law.

The adoption and publication of the proposal is the first step in the development of the regulation. Not only does the regulation have to be agreed between the 27 members of the Council but the European Parliament has to approve the text.

The FSA will represent the UK during the negotiations in the European Council, which are expected to start later this year, and will be actively engaging with stakeholders across the UK.

The FSA Board will consider the proposal in May 2008 and the UK position will then be agreed in discussion between Government Departments in Westminster and between the FSA and departments in the devolved administrations.

This is a complex process and we will be using this webpage to update stakeholders as progress is made in the negotiations on the proposal.
That seems to me to be clear enough to be understood by all but somehow this clearly explained state of affairs remains hidden from most politicians and journalists.

One of the pleasant after effects of my work with food producers and retailers is that I still receive the bi-monthly Speciality Food Magazine. I read it and sigh for the days spent working with the food industry. Then I recall the many meetings I had to attend as a stake-holder at DEFRA and smile with the thought that I no longer have to do so.

The July-August issue has a couple of short notes about the decision by the European Parliament to get rid of the so-called "traffic light" system of telling consumers about the dangers inherent in the particular item of food they are buying. As these notes are not on the website, I shall copy them out:
EU Favours GDA Labelling

Following a multimillion-pound lobbying campaign by manufacturers, MEPs have rejected plans for the compulsory introduction of 'traffic light' nutrition labels. The European Union has instead opted for the rival Guideline Daily Amounts (GDA) scheme, which expresses nutritional content as a percentage of recommended daily intake. This will be introduced on a mandatory basis. The rejection has caused some controversy because independent research previously revealed that consumers found the system the simplest and most informative way to make healthier choices about the foods they buy.
Further on in the magazine there are comments from small retailers who give various opinions on the subject.

Setting aside the "multimillion-pound campaign", which so horrifies readers of the Grauniad who clearly do not bother to find out whether it was put together by small or large producers. After all, any new regulation hits small producers much harder and they tend to campaign against them through various organizations.

Let us also set aside those "independent" researchers who were almost certainly funded by various consumer organizations who usually have an agenda of their own and the welfare of consumers is not it.

The important thing to remember is that the decision on what kind of labelling to use is made by the EU, in this case one of the Toy European Parliament's committees and that decision will be mandatory for British firms. No if, no buts.

1 comment:

  1. "The work, which resulted in a report on the meat industry and the threats it faced, published in 2000 by the Countryside Alliance"

    I'd be interested to read the report. Is it available online?