The European Parliament made it easier for ‘novel foods’ to enter the EU market last week (28 October). But all matters relating to cloned animals have been added to another legislative proposal, heating up debate on the issue.
With a majority of ALDE, EPP and ECR lawmakers voting in favor of revising the legislation (359 yes, 202 no and 127 abstentions), MEPs approved a revised text to regulations governing ‘novel foods’, which are developed or produced using new technologies and production processes.
Novel foods are officially defined as food that has not been consumed to a significant degree by humans in the EU prior to 1997, the year when the first regulation on novel foods came into force.
Novel food can be newly developed, innovative food, or food produced using new technologies and production processes, as well as food traditionally eaten outside of the EU.
It can also be food with an intentionally modified primary molecular structure, food from micro-organisms, fungi and algae, insects, plants, cellular or tissue cultures, and engineered nanomaterials.
Between 1997 and 2014, there were 170 applications for authorization across the EU. So far, approximately 90 novel foods have been authorized for use.
The process dates back to January 2008, when the Commission adopted a proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Novel Food. But the legislative discussions reached a deadlock mainly due to the provisions applicable to nanomaterials and the cloning of animals for food production.
On 24 November 2014, the European Parliament’s Committee on Environment voted on proposals to revise EU rules on novel foods.
The committee had provided a moratorium on ‘nano-foods’ until there were specific risk assessment methods in place enabling the European Food Safety Authority to assess the use of nanomaterials in food. It called on the Commission to address the use of nanomaterials in food packaging, and ensure only approved substances can be used in it.
However, the negotiations between the Council and the Commission have significantly scaled down these proposals, and the text submitted in the plenary was weakened.
Reducing red tape and time
“The new novel food Regulation when in place aims to improve conditions so that businesses can more easily bring new and innovative food to the EU market while still maintaining a high level of food safety for European consumers,” an EU source told EURACTIV.
They continued, saying that the regulation will offer European consumers the benefit of a broader choice of food and a more favorable environment for Europe’s agri-food industry – the second largest employment sector in Europe – to benefit from innovation, which in turn is good for growth and jobs.
According to figures provided by FoodDrinkEurope, an EU trade group representing the European agri-food industry, the current average approval time is 35 months but the new, centralized, approach will significantly reduce this time to 18-24 months.
Delays of 30 months or longer in approving new food products can reduce companies’ returns on new foods by an average of four million euros per product, making it far less attractive for food companies to invest in new products, FoodDrinkEurope claims.
MEP Jim Nicholson (Ulster Unionist Party), who was the rapporteur for the legislation, welcomed the Parliament’s vote, saying that it would boost investment in Europe’s food industry.
“This new law gives food companies the incentive to invest more in novel foods, boosting Europe’s food industry, creating jobs, and bringing a whole wealth of new food products into our shops,” he stressed, adding that the “cumbersome” authorization processes had discouraged companies from making the right investments.
The new rules would subject novel food to a safety evaluation and authorization at the EU level.
There will be a single authorization procedure for the EU, with the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) taking overall responsibility of the process if there is a possibility a new food could affect people’s health.
Currently, the authorization process is more complicated, as it has three or four steps.
A member state food assessment body assesses an application for pre-market authorization. Then, an initial assessment report is circulated for comments and objections to all member states by the Commission.
If no reasoned safety objections are presented, the novel food may be placed on the market. Otherwise, an authorization decision is required by the Commission. In most cases, this includes an additional assessment which is carried out by the EFSA.
Greens: Parliament didn’t live up to Europeans’ concerns
The European Green Party strongly reacted to the adoption of the legislation by the Parliament, saying that European citizens’ concerns were ignored, MEP Michèle Rivasi (Europe Écologie) told EURACTIV.
The French lawmaker added that the vote of the Parliament gave a blank check to the Commission, which will be the only institution to allow “novel foods” on the market without any possibility for the MEPs to veto such decisions.
“Firstly, by refusing to support our amendment calling for a moratorium on the presence of nanoparticles in food until an adequate European assessment for health and environment has not been finalized”, Rivasi and MEP José Bové (Europe Écologie), said in a joint statement after the vote.
“We finally asked the right of a veto for the Parliament on the authorization of any new food in the single market,” they added.
“The European Commission can still decide, by implementing acts, whether or not a particular food falls within the definition of novel food,” the Greens said in a separate communique before the vote.
Food industry satisfied
FoodDrinkEurope told EURACTIV that it was satisfied with the revision of the Novel Foods Regulation.
“It is of crucial importance to Europe’s food and drink industry, given its potential to stimulate innovation and, therefore, respond to consumer demands by providing them with safe, sound, sustainable and affordable choices,” it said, mainly focusing on the centralized and simplified authorization procedure and the definition of nanomaterial.
ECR spokesperson on the Environment and Public Health, Julie Girling (Conservatives), said that “this proposal is welcome news both for the food industry and for food lovers”.
The British MEP added that the vote could particularly encourage innovation in the UK, which has Europe’s highest number of pending authorizations for new food products.
“Current laws are so cumbersome that they discourage food companies from investing in new products and technologies, hampering prospects for growth […] This new law will give more incentives to boost the food industry, create jobs, and bring a whole wealth of new food products into our shops.”
According to the European Commission, cloning is a relatively new technique, which allows asexual reproduction of animals.
“The technique is currently not used for food production purposes in the EU. Therefore, since foods from clones are not obtained by traditional breeding practices, they qualify as “novel foods”.
In September, MEPs took a harder line than the one proposed by the Commission on cloned animals, refusing to authorize food products from clones and their descendants.
While the executive had proposed a ban on the consumption of cloned meat from the most common kinds of farm animals (bovine, ovine, equine and caprine), EU lawmakers decided to ban to all imports of any products, notably food, derived from cloned animals and their descendants.
An EU source told EURACTIV that the descendants of clones create neither food safety concerns, nor animal welfare concerns.
“We took note of European Parliament’s vote on the Commission’s Cloning proposals back on 8 September, but the Commission cannot support the amendments of the Parliament as they are not justified by animal welfare or food safety concerns,” the source said, adding:
“The Commission has therefore strong reservations on the legality and proportionality of many of the amendments. Therefore we take the view that the original proposals are sound, justified and represent a balanced and workable approach.”