The European Commission continues to serve the interests of big companies rather than consumers, and this will lead to new food scandals soon, the European consumer organisation foodwatch said on Tuesday (10 July).
It released eight specific demands to amend the current EU General Food Law legislation following the presentation last April of a European Commission reform proposal focusing on improving risk assessment of hazardous substances.
“A more transparent risk assessment is definitely an important point but by no means the only issue that needs to be addressed for improving the protection of consumers’ rights,” Thilo Bode, founder and executive director of foodwatch international, told a press conference in Brussels.
As an example, the Commission proposal would make studies on the safety of weed killers, such as glyphosate, more publicly available, the consumer organisation explained.
“What this means is that for the European Commission, everything is fine, the current legislation has achieved its core objectives, namely a high level of consumer protection from health risk and fraud, and only the risk assessment aspect needs to be improved. That is not enough,” said Thilo Bode.
This is why the consumer organisation defined eight specifics demands:
- reinforcement of traceability throughout the food chain at member state level,
- mandatory application of the precautionary principle in risk communication, risk management and the approval of potentially harmful substances for the European Commission, EFSA and the authorities of member states,
- prohibition of any product label or presentation that has the potential to mislead consumers,
- disclosure obligations for public authorities,
- testing obligations for businesses of the products they sell,
- effective information rights for consumers,
- consumer organisations collective rights of legal action against companies,
- consumer organisations rights of legal action against authorities
In a note, foodwatch recalled that the EU General Food Law was adopted in 2002, in the wake of the BSE epidemic otherwise known as “mad cow disease”. This legislation laid down the general principles and requirement of food law and established the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), it explained.
“During the epidemic of ‘mad cow disease’, consumers were given no chance to defend themselves or to recognise the risks they were taking by consuming beef. In the end, no one was held reliable for this catastrophe”, Bode underlined, adding that the BSE crisis marked a turning point in consumer protection in Europe.
He stressed that the EU General Food Law was a very good response at the time, but in the light of the numerous food scandals in the past 15 years, it revealed its flaws.
In 2014, the European Commission started a so-called REFIT (Regulatory Fitness and Performance Programme) evaluation process and published its findings in January 2018. In April 2018, the EU executive then presented what the institution coined a targeted revision of the EU General Food Law regulation, together with the revision of eight pieces of sectoral legislation.
The aim of the initiative is to bring them in line with the general rules and strengthen transparency in the area of GMOs, feed additives, smoke flavourings, food contact materials, food additives, food enzymes and flavourings, plant protection products and novel foods, the Commission explained.
Thilo Bode deplored that food scandals are almost a daily business and said one cannot complain that food scandals are happening and yet not doing anything.
Corinne Cornelisse from foodwatch Netherlands and Karine Jacquemart of foodwatch France cited the recent cases of the Fipronil and Lactalis scandals, insisting on the large-scale impact they had on consumers, not only in Europe but also worldwide.
“Public, private and organic inspections had failed to identify illegal practices, which had been going on for months. As a result, the scandal reached mammoth proportions with fipronil-tainted eggs being exported to 45 countries”, said Corinne Cornelisse, adding that the substance was unsurprisingly also found in processed foods, sometimes in high concentrations.
“The fipronil scandal shows how quickly a contamination spreads out and how slow the reaction is. Yet, there is no way for the public to get the information it needs. It’s been a year now and the critical response remains very lax,” she added.
Commenting on the Lactalis scandal, Karine Jacquemart raised the issue of traceability and information rights to consumers.
“12 million boxes of contaminated baby milk were shipped to 86 countries worldwide, exposing countless infants to a preventable health risk. Yet consumers have been kept in the dark the whole time. foodwatch sent questions to the government and never received a response. Sometimes, it is the consumers themselves who provided some information,” she recalled.
“This shows the opacity and the impunity that prevails in the whole food chain. It has to stop,” Karine Jacquemart urged.
Bound to happen again
Lena Blanken from foodwatch Germany said this situation could have been prevented if the existing European legislation on traceability had been properly enforced and if food businesses were required to test the safety of the products they sell.
“The General Food Law is weakly enforced by the member states. Traceability is not working in Europe even though it is crucial for making the whole food chain transparent”, she explained.
For Thilo Bode, the EU has failed to protect 500 million consumers in Europe from health risk and deception in the food market.
“Worse still, the European Union is doing nothing to improve the situation, but instead continues to serve the interests of big companies. The next food scandal is bound to happen,” he said.