Commission’s formaldehyde U-turn shows need to separate science from politics, emotion

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For decades, we have used formaldehyde in Europe to treat feed, and have prevented the spread of salmonella to millions of chickens. [Pexels]

Chemicals, even naturally occurring ones, often sound scary, and they certainly can be hazardous. But most, when appropriately managed, deliver significant benefits, writes Rick Phillips.

Dr Rick Phillips is the president and CEO of Anitox, a global leader in the control of pathogens. He is a poultry veterinarian.

Bleaches are important for cleaning and sanitation, but we keep them out of reach of children. Petrol fuels our cars, but we don’t bathe in it.  Aftershaves and perfumes keep us smelling pleasant, but we don’t drink them. Good policymaking involves going beyond emotion, to make decisions based on the scientific evidence and reasoned risk management.

Formaldehyde is a classic example of a substance that has negative associations, but which serves a number of critical functions in the world in which we live. This prejudice is unwarranted as formaldehyde occurs in all plants and animals.

In its pure form, formaldehyde can be very dangerous. That is why it is used as a stabilised blend in water (called formalin) for most uses and why the right safety precautions must be in place for its use. It has a wide range of applications in medicine, drug-testing, agriculture, building and construction, and cosmetics. It can be used safely, improve standards of living, and even save lives.

For years, formaldehyde in the form of formalin has been used safely to eradicate salmonella in animal feed and keep it free from recontamination, something which makes it very unique.  In fact, it is the single most effective way of preventing salmonella from entering our food chain from feed. For decades, we have used formaldehyde in Europe to treat feed, and have prevented the spread of salmonella to millions of chickens.

This safe use of formaldehyde is supported by the EU’s independent scientific bodies, which have reviewed the evidence from over 20 years of formaldehyde use in Europe.

Both EFSA (the European Food Safety Authority) and SCOEL (the European Commission body responsible for fixing exposure limits for chemicals in the workplace) have found formaldehyde to be safe for consumers and workers (as long as the exposure limits are observed). EFSA has also identified the important role formaldehyde can play in eradicating salmonella.

Formaldehyde is the effective solution we need now more than ever to combat salmonella. Over the last two years, salmonella cases have started to increase in Europe. Data recently published in Poland – Europe’s largest poultry producer – have shown that the annual number of salmonella cases increased in 2016 to levels not seen in a decade.

Multi-country outbreaks in 2016 and 2017 have made thousands of Europeans ill and led to a number of fatalities.

Amid this alarming situation, the European Commission made a major U-turn in July, ending its two-year effort to re-authorise the use of formaldehyde to treat feed with a surprise proposal to deny its continued use.

What new scientific evidence has come to light to cause the Commission to change its position on formaldehyde? The answer is simply none.

The Commission’s position on formaldehyde’s use in animal feed is not based on scientific evidence and is not consistent with the Commission’s own position on other uses of formaldehyde.

In the fields of medicine and elsewhere, the Commission trusts in the Occupational Exposure Limits set by its own expert committee, but in relation to feed, these safe limits are rejected.

The Commission seems to be letting emotion, politics and prejudice override science. The formaldehyde flip-flop sets a very dangerous precedent. It calls into question the credibility of the EU’s scientific institutions, whose opinions may be ignored and misused for political purposes. With Europe experiencing one of the worst salmonella outbreaks in recent history, the Commission’s actions seem downright reckless.