European Commission President José Manuel Barroso on Tuesday (5 March) strongly defended the EU's response to the horsemeat scandal that has shaken consumer confidence and, more broadly, could have repercussions for international trade.
Barroso’s response to the spreading scandal followed statements made by Tonio Borg, commissioner for health and consumer affairs, who in an interview with EURACTIV downplayed calls by some MEPs for more stringent food labelling laws.
Barroso credited the EU's food alert system with quickly notifying safety authorities and the public about potentially fraudulent presence of horsemeat in prepared meat products. But he acknowledged that the Europe needs a more legal muscle to punish wrongdoing.
"No system in the world can prevent people from taking illegal actions," Barroso said in response to questions at the Forum for Agriculture in Brussels. "But the reality was that our system worked properly so that it was possible to identify that there was a violation of the rules."
"It is a common criticism from that the European Union already has too much regulation, and now when we have a problem, people say where is the regulation?" he asked. "It was possible to identify the origin of the problem and we had a quick response to that."
Reacting to EURACTIV's interview with Tonio Borg, the Socialist group in the European Parliament said the EU's health commissioner was misguided in resisting an update of EU rules that would make labelling obligatory also for processed food like lasagna.
"He is clearly mistaken," said Bernadette Vergnaud, a French MEP, saying that new leabelling obligations would force the food processing industries "to become interested in the origin of the products they use" and "be the first element in the fight against this type of fraud".
Barroso's remarks came amid mounting concern of global fallout from the scandal that began two months ago when trace amounts of horsemeat was discovered in packaged hamburger patties in Ireland and Britain.
There are fears that Europe's prized agriculture products could come under growing scrutiny. The EU exports more than €100 billion in agricultural goods annually and farming accounts for 6% of the economy, according to Commission figures.
Russian authorities have already raised questions about the reliability of EU exports following the reported discovery of horsemeat in sausages imported from Austria.
Food safety authorities from the EU and Russia are cooperating in an investigation, Commission officials said.
Russia moved last month to ban frozen meats from Germany – drawing a quick rebuke from EU officials – although Moscow denied the action was related to horsemeat discoveries. Moscow informed the World Trade Organization that it made the decision on the grounds the Germans lacked sufficient veterinary safeguards.
The meat affair also comes at a time when EU leaders are hoping to capitalise on US President Barack Obama's opening the door to speedy trade talks.
Robert Zoellick, the former World Bank president and US trade representative, told journalists in Brussels that agriculture would be "one of the toughest issues" in EU-US negotiations. Zoellick also spoke at the Forum for Agriculture.
Tainted export environment
Farm and food safety issues have long plagued transatlantic hopes for closer trade ties, with Europeans resisting genetically modified foods and questioning the safety of US meat and meat products. Only last month did the EU ease restrictions on live pigs and beef washed in lactic acid imported from the United States as a gesture to encourage trade talks.
Also Tuesday, a top Commission official denied the horsemeat affair has exposed consumers to health or safety risk from EU meat products but acknowledged that the cost to the EU's reputation is "many multiples" more than the actual cost of prepared foods that have been scrapped.
So far, the meat scandal has involved some 800-850 tonnes of horsemeat and 3,600 tonnes of prepared meat products have been discarded.
"There is no labelling or food safety issue," said Ladislav Miko, deputy director general for health and consumer affairs, told a news conference. "We didn't yet find any risk to safety."
Barroso said that in response to the horsemeat affair, the Commission was considering strengthening its enforcement powers, including the possibility of imposing fines.
But he insisted that no regulatory change was needed.
"Let's be honest. Our system in Europe is one of the best if not the best in the world in terms of quality, the standards for consumer protection, probably the best there is," he said.