Novel foods review stumbles over cloning


Last-chance conciliation talks on a review of the EU's novel foods regulation collapsed early this morning after officials failed to agree on the use of cloned animals' offspring for food production.

After three years and three rounds of negotiations between the Council and the European Parliament, lawmakers and member-state representatives failed to agree on food obtained from naturally conceived offspring of clones.

While the two institutions agreed to ban the use of cloning in animal reproduction for food production, and to ban comestible products from cloned animals altogether, they clashed on allowing onto the EU market food obtained from clones' offspring.

As a compromise, the Parliament proposed mandatory labelling of such products, rather than a ban, to enable consumers to choose whether they want food produced indirectly via cloning technology.

But the Council said it was willing to agree to label only one type of product – fresh beef.

According to the Parliament delegation, the Council also refused to give the EU assembly a right to veto new additions to the novel foods list.

The negotiations ended at seven o'clock this morning after 12-hour marathon talks, when the Council refused a final compromise offer from the Parliament and the Parliament delegation refused to continue discussions.

The failure means that the whole process will have to be re-started from scratch, with the Commission having the option of tabling a new review proposal.

Meanwhile, the bloc's current Novel Foods Regulation, in force since 1997, will continue to apply.

However, the regulation does not cover new types of food or food production techniques developed since 1997, including for example the use of nanotechnology.

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

Way forward

Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi, a member of the lawmakers' delegation to the conciliation talks, urged the Commission to present a revised proposal on 'novel food' rules.

It must also stick to its pledge to present specific legislation on cloning by March 2013 at the latest, she added. Indeed, during the conciliation talks, the EU executive had proposed to draft and table separate legislation on cloning by 2013, an idea that was apparently welcomed by member states.

Meanwhile, the Parliament will try to find a way to incorporate the labelling of clone food products into proposed EU legislation on food information to consumers, which is currently going though the EU's legislative machinery, Hassi added.

The Parliament's environment committee is set to adopt a draft report on food information at second reading next month, with a plenary vote scheduled for July.

EU Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner John Dalli said: "I remain convinced that the only way to guarantee a good deal for EU consumers and food business operators is to deliver a proposal that is based on common sense and one that is both practicable and enforceable including on the issue of labelling."

"I will reflect on the disappointing outcome in view of assessing the next steps both with respect to the novel food Regulation and the follow-up to the Commission's report of October on the issue of cloning in food production," he added.

The European Parliament's rapporteur on the dossier, Dutch MEP Kartika Liotard (European United Left/Nordic Green Left) and Italian MEP Gianni Pittella (Socialists & Democrats), chair of the Parliament's delegation to the conciliation process, stated that "it is deeply frustrating that Council would not listen to public opinion and support urgently needed measures to protect consumer and animal welfare interests".

"We made a huge effort to compromise but we were not willing to betray consumers on their right to know whether food comes from animals bred using clones. Since European public opinion is overwhelmingly against cloning for food, a commitment to label all food products from cloned offspring is a bare minimum," they said.

Liotard noted that the failure of the negotiations will have significant adverse effects. "Consumers are deprived of the right to free choice. Cloned and nano-food remains unregulated, unlabelled and available in shops," whereas food manufacturers are left with no clarity on what is and is not allowed in Europe. "Why should companies invest in something, if they cannot be certain whether it will be authorised in a few years?" she asked.

Finnish Green MEP Satu Hassi said that "the European Commission has played an inglorious role in these negotiations, proactively pushing EU member states to resist any ban on clone food. 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".

But Scottish MEP Struan Stevenson, the European Conservatives and Reformists group's shadow rapporteur on the file, said "it seems to me that MEPs were too keen to over-complicate the cloning issue. They demanded labelling and traceability, which would have placed great cost and pressure on EU producers and consumers and inevitably could have caused a trade war".

Hungarian Minister of Rural Development Sándor Fazekas said that the Council was ready to establish a practically and legally feasible framework providing the highest possible standards for food safety. This would have included a ban on cloning for food purposes, the introduction of full traceability of cloned animals and the gradual introduction of labelling to provide a basis for informed consumer choice.

"However, the Parliament chose to go down the road of political grandstanding instead and tried to push the Council to accept a misleading, unfeasible solution that in practice would have required drawing a family tree for each slice of cheese or salami," he lamented.

According to Fazekas, the Parliament's proposed solution would have given a false sense of security to consumers and risked dragging the EU into a full blown trade war. Therefore, the Council as responsible co-legislator was unable to follow the Parliament down this road, he said.

Ahead of the last-chance talks, the European consumers' organisation BEUC noted that the failure of talks would mean that the positive provisions already achieved in the proposed legislation, such improved authorisation procedures for foodstuffs from third countries or a definition of nanotechnology, were lost.

BEUC insists that the minimum requirements for consumers are traceability and labelling of offspring of cloned animals and reproductive materials (semen and embryos of clones), as consumers should be able to know about and choose the meat they eat and the milk they drink.

The Confederation of food and drink industries of the EU (CIAA) regrets the failure to reach an agreement on the novel foods regulation review, which, it said, “would have stimulated innovation in the food and drink industry by simplifying and streamlining the current regulatory framework and facilitating market access for novel foods.”

“Regrettably, the current framework creates bottlenecks to innovation, reducing investment in research and development by food and drink manufacturers and slowing novel foods from coming to market. In comparison, the new regulation would have accelerated and centralised the authorisation process. It also would have introduced a definition for engineered nanomaterials, providing manufacturers with greater legal certainty,” CIAA added.

Director of Eurogroup for Animals, Sonja van Tichelen, disappointed with the result, said that “the finger must be pointed directly at the Commission which, during the whole legislative process has ignored the views of its own citizens and consumers while putting its trade relations with the US first. The legal obligation to pay full regard to animal welfare and the EU’s own law which does not allow reproduction techniques which cause animal suffering has simply been dismissed.”

The group argues that Commission has merely “repeated the arguments of the US lobby which has claimed that it would be impossible to trace meat, milk or any product coming from cloned animals and offspring. Putting pressure on member states by saying this would result in all imported meat being banned which is not compatible with trade rules. Traceability is achievable and is already a requirement for food safety so there is no need to ban all imports.”

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.

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