EU novel food regulation review at risk

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As talks between the European Parliament and the European Commission to update an EU regulation on novel foods stumble on cloning, the institutions have now two more weeks to find a compromise agreement before the whole review fails on 30 March.

Discussions on amending the bloc’s novel foods regulation failed at four o'clock on Thursday morning (17 March), after nine hour marathon talks, amid disagreement over whether or not to ban food from clones and their offspring.

The Parliament is calling for the explicit ban of meat produced from cloned animals and their descendants, whereas EU ministers and the Commission back ban on cloning for food production, but reject ban on food from offspring.

According to EU conciliation rules, if the two institutions fail to reach an agreement by a 30 March deadline, the whole proposal – on which work began in 2008 – will have to be scrapped.

So far, only one conciliation process has failed: on the Working Time Directive.

Risk of conciliation failure

The failure of the novel foods review would leave the use and development of new foods, not to mention the cloning and application of new technologies such as nanotechnology, in legal limbo for years to come.

The European Environmental Bureau voiced concern in particular over nanofoods, which would escape political attention if conciliation fails.

The Parliament is seeking a moratorium on foods containing nanomaterials until specific risk assessments have proven that they are safe.

They also want food containing nano-ingredients to be labelled. The Council supports a more lenient approach, backing a case-by-case authorisation process after the safety of foods containing or consisting of manufactured nanomaterials has been evaluated.

Little hope of agreement

A last-chance conciliation meeting is provisionally schedued for the evening of 28 March.

But the Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) said that while the House "will do its outmost" to achieve an agreement before the deadline and is prepared to negotiate, "we will not cave in at any price".

She said that the negotiations can only have a positive outcome "if the Council moves towards consumers' expectations on the issue of cloning," referring to Eurobarometer survey results.

The latest survey shows that only 15% of EU citizens support animal cloning for food, whereas 70% think the practice should not be encouraged in food production.

"If the position of the Council and the Commission remains exclusively tied to commercial trade interests, Parliament won't accept any deal," Liotard said.

But the Council said in a statement that together with the Commission they had reasons to reject a ban on food obtained from the naturally conceived offspring of clones.

It stressed that neither the EU, nor third countries have a system for tracing the natural offspring of clones in the food chain.

Therefore, if restrictions on cloned cattle were introduced, Europe would have to reject imports of beef and dairy products from countries such as the United States, as producers could not fully trace the ancestors of their products.

"Such a ban would be impossible to defend under WTO rules and would lead to direct retaliatory measures by third countries," reads the Council statement.

According to the Council, the ban cannot be justified from an animal welfare perspective either, as the offspring of cloned animals are bred using traditional methods.

Finally, it underlined that "such a ban would mislead consumers as there are already non-traceable offspring in the EU and foodstuff derived from them has already entered the food market".

These animals mainly end up into the EU food supply chain via imports of breeding material from the US.    

Pointing finger at Commission

Italian MEP Gianni Pittella (Socialists and Democrats), chair of the Parliament's delegation to the conciliation process, lamented that while the European Commission is supposed to act in a conciliatory manner to help the other two institutions reach an agreement, the House "could not count on its help".

"The Commission's position is even more rigid than that of the Council, which is not very helpful in reaching an agreement," Pittella said.

MEP Liotard even suggested that the failure of negotiations had more to do with the very firm line taken by the EU executive.

Sources told EURACTIV that instead of sticking to its role of being an impartial mediator in the conciliation negotiations, the Commission, in particular its trade department, has been acting as a "true lobbyist", actively seeking to influence the Parliament's position on the dossier in particular.

In a letter sent to Commission President José Manuel Barroso earlier this month, European Parliament President Jerzy Buzek said that the House was not satisfied with the manner in which the Commission had acted in this conciliation procedure and asked the EU executive to play its role as a mediator between the Council and the Parliament.

The letter was sent after EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht warned the Parliament that a ban on the offspring of cloned cattle could spark a trade war between the EU and the rest of the world.

But MEP Liotard noted that if the regulatory review fails and there is no regulation to face up to new developments in the field of novel foods, it would impact upon world trade as well.

Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi said the European Commission had played "an inglorious role in these negotiations" via "proactively pushing EU member states to resist any ban on clone food, even though its role under the treaties should only be to 'facilitate' negotiations. It is highly regrettable that the Commission is more concerned with the interests of its trading partners in third countries and their niche industry than the will of the majority of EU citizens".

Monique Goyens, director-general of European consumers organisation BEUC, reacting to the Commissioner De Gucht's comments on the threat of a trade war, stressed that "legislators should not use commercial arguments to endanger the choice of EU consumers. They did not give in to big business on hormone-treated beef EU imports and we need to see the same determination repeated".

"An overwhelming majority of EU consumers do not want cloning to be used for food production purposes: 84% are concerned about the long-term health and safety effects, and yet the Commission persists in ignoring the very people they are supposed to represent," BEUC added.

Belgian Green MEP Bart Staes stressed that "it is crucial that the descendents of clones are also covered, as it is ultimately these descendents, and not the original clones, that will be used for food production. The Council's claims that there are no animal welfare concerns resulting to the offspring of clones is ludicrous and flies in the face of the evidence".

UK MEP Linda McAvan (Socialists & Democrats) said that "we need to have a public debate on cloning. There are many ethical, animal welfare and consumer issues which need a public airing".

On behalf of the Hungarian Presidency, Sándor Fazekas, Hungarian minister for rural development, said that "we arrived with a clear mandate from the Council providing the maximum possible protection of consumers with a system that is practically and legally feasible".

"The position of the European Parliament would require drawing a family tree for each slice of cheese or salami, which is practically impossible, would mislead consumers and create horrendous extra costs for farmers," the Council stressed in a statement.

The EU's current Novel Foods Regulation dates back to May 1997. It does not cover foods developed since then that use nanotechnology, nor does it cover foods that are consumed outside the EU. 

The European Commission adopted a legislative proposal to amend the current Novel Foods Regulation in January 2008.

The aim, according to the EU executive, is to allow "for safe and innovative foods to reach the EU market faster" and to encourage the development of "new types of foods and food production techniques".

The regulation would create a centralised authorisation system to simplify and speed up the process of authorisation for novel foods. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) would be responsible for carrying out the risk assessment for a novel food application and, if judged safe, the Commission would then propose its authorisation.

Only novel foods that are included on the Community list after assessment by the EFSA may be placed on the market.

  • 28 March 2011: Last-chance conciliation meeting scheduled.
  • 30 March 2011: Deadline for reaching agreement in conciliation before review fails.

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