MEPs ready to negotiate EFSA’s transparency rule, but need to find a new negotiator

The rapporteur Renate Sommer announced her intention to quit the file on new European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) transparency rules immediately after the report was approved. [VANDEN WIJGAERT/EP]

The long and troubled parliamentary procedure to overhaul the current food transparency rules for European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) ended in an unexpected twist as the EPP’s rapporteur Renate Sommer asked to withdraw her name from the report just passed by the Parliament’s plenary.

On Tuesday (11 December), the European Parliament approved in Strasbourg the mandate to start the trilogue with EU ministers over the new rules for EFSA by 427 votes in favour, 172 against and 67 abstentions.

The rapporteur Sommer, who presented to the plenary the same amendments that had been rejected in the ENVI Committee, announced her intention to quit the file after the report was approved, displeased with the fact that the plenary also voted down her approach.

The report will now be sent back to the ENVI committee, and it will be up to the EPP to appoint a new rapporteur since the file was originally allocated to the group.

The new rapporteur will be announced in the coordinators’ meeting, but according to a source close to the file, the name of the new negotiator is unlikely to be known before January.

The proposing legislation falls under the Commission’s plan to update the General Food Law (GFL) and follows the controversy surrounding the safety evaluations of glyphosate.

After GFL’s fitness check was launched in 2014 and completed in January 2018, the EU executive presented in April new proposals that grant EU citizens greater access to information submitted to the food safety body, EFSA, in an effort to provide more transparency in the decisions related to approvals in the agri-food chain.

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MEPs debated in the ENVI committee in October whether to follow the normal procedure and ask for a mandate from the plenary, or go for the so-called fast-track to start negotiations immediately after the Committee vote.

As one of the shadows told EURACTIV.com, Sommer’s intention was to ask for a mandate from the plenary because it was a “complicated” file.

However, after she notified the Austrian EU presidency of the Council that there was no time to follow the fast-track process and finalise it before the EU election, she received several complaints about slowing down the whole process.

Political split persists

The plenary confirmed the ideological split within the Parliament already seen last week in the smaller PEST Committee, which had adopted a diluted advisory final report on the EU authorisation procedure for pesticides.

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Divisions in the plenary ran between those who see the European industry’s competitiveness threatened from the risk assessment criteria proposed by the Commission, and those who call for a higher level for transparency for citizens.

According to Sommer, what the plenary decided can “seriously jeopardise the competitiveness of European manufacturers”. She said it could endanger innovation and jobs in the EU since the industry may opt to migrate to third countries.

Sommer’s j’accuse was aimed at socialists, greens and leftist, who have “followed the populist Commission proposal,” saying in a statement that “the European election campaign has long since begun, and transparency always sounds so citizen-friendly.”

Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis replied to her with a tweet saying that he “politely disagree on the claim that the proposal will endanger the EU.

“We cannot rely on the industry to judge whether its own products are harmful,” said Bart Staes, co-rapporteur on PEST Committee’s final report and Greens/EFA group spokesperson on pesticide approval.

The S&D group welcomed positively the approval of the mandate. The socialist shadow on the file, Pavel Poc, said: “There has been a shade of mistrust on how EFSA approves its reports. We must reinstall trust in the European food chain and make our institutions resistant to any external pressure.”

The PEST Committee boss Eric Andrieu also welcomed the mandate, saying it was in line with his own committe’s work.

“We are glad the EU Parliament chose to stand by consumers,” commented the EU consumer organisation (BEUC) director general Monique Goyens.

Lost battles

The rapporteur’s “resignation” stems from an issue related to intellectual property, particularly regarding the publication of safety studies before a product is authorised to go on the market.

This would lead, according to Sommer, to a risk of what she called “worldwide ideas piracy”, where competitors such as China could easily check the Internet for copying innovative product developments in the food sector in the EU.

“Given the comparatively long approval procedures at EFSA, it would be easy for competitors in third countries to launch a product copy on the international market during this time,” she said in a statement.

The plenary also rejected her amendment 141, which would have reversed the burden of demonstrating that a product is harmful from the industry onto EFSA. The amendment was considered a real “game changer” by some sources close to the file.

The vote against this amendment, which was pivotal for Sommer’s entire approach, was the straw and probably led to her final decision to quit the file.

A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food

The discussion about food policies in Europe is often heated up and quite frequently politicised. The right balance between science, politics and policy-making has always been difficult to achieve.

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