From the commitment to fighting (and possibly defeating) cancer to the food labelling minefield, the bar will be set pretty high when it comes to health and food safety in 2020. Will the EU be able to live up to its ambitious promises?
There’s no question that the new EU health boss Stella Kyriakides has left a good impression on MEPs, stakeholders and patients’ rights advocates, due, in part, to her hinterland as a medical professional and a breast cancer patient herself.
However, expectations raised on tasks assigned to her might prove to be too high, considering the very limited EU competence on public health and the highly political debate on food safety.
Here are five things to watch out for in the forthcoming year.
1) Fighting cancer (yes, but how?)
For most of 2020, lawmakers and stakeholders in the healthcare sector will be kept busy by the much-awaited Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan, one of the flagship initiatives in Commission President Ursula von der Leyen’s agenda.
While the action plan itself is expected to be presented towards the end of the year, the Commission will formally start the debate on it at a conference at the European Parliament on 4 February, on World Cancer Day.
Stella Kyriakides has been given the tough task of steering the Commission’s efforts between the lack of legislative competence on public health and the need to meet the high expectation of ‘beating’ cancer.
Particular attention will likely be paid to reducing inequalities among member states when it comes to screening, early diagnosis and innovative medicines.
Addressing risk-factors such as tobacco consumption and alcohol abuse will remain on the Commission’s radar, as well as the need to involve non-health actors in what Kyrikiades deemed as a ‘horizontal approach’ to cancer.
How these can all be implemented in practice in a consistent and ambitious manner, remains a big question mark in 2020.
The European Parliament could play its part by setting up a special committee on cancer along the lines of the one on pesticides in the past legislative term.
2) Food labelling, a new nationalists’ battlefield
It might come as a surprise but the conditions are right for foodstuffs to become the next cause for complaint in the eternal struggle of Eurosceptic nationalists and Brussels technocrats in 2020.
After years of announcements and denials, the Commission is now expected to come up with a proposal for an EU-wide nutritional label system as part of its new EU food policy, the Farm 2 Fork strategy (F2F).
Foodstuff labelling falls within food safety, one of the main competences of the Health Commissioner, her supporting service DG SANTE, and EU agencies like the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
However, the debate on food labelling remains highly political and has already created frictions with member states in the past.
The only nutritional label system tested in supermarkets’ aisles so far is the so-called Nutriscore, developed in France and being used also in Belgium and Spain but now challenged by Italy, where Matteo Salvini, the leader of the right-wing Lega, has recently condemned Nutriscore as being part of a ‘secret plan’ conceived in Brussels that would damage the reputation of Italian food.
The move by Salvini, who has been criticised for politicising food policy in the past, will whip food labelling into a burning issue in domestic public opinion, forcing the Italian government to take an equally combative stance.
Italy and other Southern countries such as France, Spain and Greece, have also made a counter proposal for legislation that makes country of origin labelling of foodstuff mandatory.
3) Plant protection alternatives
A potential headache for Kyriakides could also come from another issue related to food safety, the hoped-for reduction in Europe’s dependence on pesticides.
Ursula von der Leyen has put pesticide reduction high on her political agenda, embedded in Commission’s zero pollution strategy.
In a leaked presentation of the European Green Deal circulating before the official communication on 11 December, the target for pesticide reduction was set at 50%. However, in the final version that target was scrapped, a taste of how the issue of pesticide reduction could be difficult to address in 2020.
Much will depend on the capacity of the EU to stimulate the take-up of low-risk and non-chemical alternatives to traditional plant protection products, which is still an uphill battle.
4) Prices and medical devices
2020 could also be the year when the proposed regulation on health technology assessment (HTA) see the light at the end of the tunnel.
This piece of legislation aimed to help EU countries deciding on pricing and reimbursement by health insurers or health systems.
But the file has been stuck in the Council of Ministers, showing that the assessment of new drugs’ added therapeutic value or innovation is becoming one of the thorniest problems in the sector.
Kyriakides will also oversee the full implementation of the new EU’s medical devices regulatory frameworks, which will be fully applicable from 2020.
In order to do so, she will have increased powers with the move of the unit dealing with medical devices from DG GROW to her DG SANTE.
5) Lifelong healthcare
The quality of care for chronic conditions was announced as one of the incoming Croatian EU presidency’s priorities regarding healthcare.
In its programme, it highlighted that special emphasis will be given to policies that address “lifelong health concerns.”
In a public session of December’s EU Health Council, Croatia’s Health minister Tomislav Dulibić clarified that for lifelong health care they also mean challenges posed by an ageing population and oncology.
The increase in survivorship is switching cancer towards being a chronic disease, raising also the issue of patients’ social reintegration into society.
[Edited by Benjamin Fox]