Community Research and Development Information Service - CORDIS

The consumer''s right to expect safe food

David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection underlined the importance of public opinion in any debate on the relative merits of biotechnology, when he addressed participants at a conference on 'Biotechnology - science and impact' in The Hague, The...
David Byrne, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection underlined the importance of public opinion in any debate on the relative merits of biotechnology, when he addressed participants at a conference on 'Biotechnology - science and impact' in The Hague, The Netherlands, this January.

'The only way forward to face the controversy surrounding biotechnology is to promote an open-minded and balanced dialogue between all stakeholders', he said. 'Furthermore', he continued, 'we have to accept and respect consumers' right to have clear information in order to take informed decisions on which products they want to buy'.

According to Mr Byrne, the most important value that consumers attach to the food they buy is its safety. He pointed to the BSE and dioxin crises as events undermining consumer confidence in the systems and institutions, at both national and international level, that should guarantee 'the highest standards of food safety'.

In an effort to restore consumer confidence in the safety of the food on their shelves, the European Commission recently adopted a White Paper on food safety. This document lays down the Commission's plans to transform EU food policy.

'The actions planned are based on a comprehensive integrated approach throughout the food chain...designed to make EU legislation more coherent, understandable and flexible. The more than 80 actions proposed include proposals on GMOs as we are acutely aware of the need to have a coherent and predictable framework on GMO foods, animal feeds and seeds, for example', said the Commissioner.

In the White Paper, the Commission also stresses that scientific advice must be open to public scrutiny and, in order to maintain confidence, the system must ensure that scientific assessments are only carried out by 'eminent scientists and independently of industrial and political interests'. It therefore recommends an independent European Food Authority be set up, to be responsible for risk assessment and risk communication.

This new body will not however be an equivalent to the US Food and Drug Administration. It will not have regulatory powers - which will remain in the remit of the European institutions, but it will work closely with national scientific agencies and institutions in charge of food safety.

Commissioner Byrne went on to reinforce the Commission view that consumers are entitled to make informed decisions about the food they buy - a value that has been crucial in the recent adoption of revisions to EU legislation on food labelling - in particular that containing genetically modified material (see CORDIS News RCNs 13820; 14146; 14145).

Current EU legislation operates on a science-based approach that prevents genetically modified food being placed on the European market until it has been scientifically evaluated, and when it is considered to be safe for human health and the environment. Whenever there is insufficient scientific evidence or inconclusive poof of food safety, the Commission believes measures should be based on a 'precautionary principle'. It is therefore currently working on a communication defining the precautionary principle, looking at how and when it could be applied.

'First and foremost', said David Byrne, 'GMOs must be safe. There is a need for proper information, the traceability of novel feed and food must be ensured, authorisation must be time-limited and there must be careful monitoring.'

However, he concluded his comments by stressing some of the advantages of biotechnology, and revealed his concern that it may be irresponsible to ignore the potential offered by biotechnology to address many important medical, environmental and nutritional challenges.

Source: European Commission, Press and Communication Service

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Subjects

Biotechnology - Food
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