Major changes ahead in Europe's food safety systems

by Emily Wilson
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Europe's food and farming industries, which produce around U.S.$830 billion worth of goods a year and employ over 10 million people, are facing a period of major change as food safety and consumer concerns replace the drive for ever higher production and lower costs. New controls and legislation are planned which are designed to ensure the safety of the food chain "from farm to fork."

If the 20th century was about expanding agriculture and increasing output, the beginning of the 21st century will be about safety and accountability.

The implications for the grain-based food industries are wide ranging, affecting every link in the food production chain, and will produce many problems in the coming months in working out practical applications for the concepts laid out in the new legislation. Whichever way the food safety strategy emerges in its final form, there is no question that the recurring food scares of BSE, salmonella, feed contamination and genetically modified crops are likely to achieve what decades of political negotiating have failed to do — a fundamental reform of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Any doubts about the need for a wide-ranging shake-up of the systems designed to ensure the safety of food production in the European Union have been firmly squashed by the escalation of the BSE crisis at the end of last year. Discovery of a small number of cases of bovine spongiform encephalopothy in the cattle herds of Germany, France, Spain and Italy at the end of 2000 have shaken consumer confidence in these countries in a way that no other food scares have done before.

Beef consumption has fallen by 30% across most of Europe, and livestock prices have slumped. The U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization has warned that at least 100 countries are at risk of the disease spread by contaminated meat and bone meal exported from Europe since the 1980s.

Even before the latest scare over BSE, the E.U. had begun to put in place plans for fundamental changes in the way in which food production is safeguarded. The emergence of BSE, initially thought — or, more correctly, hoped — to be a peculiarly British problem; the ongoing controversy over genetically modified foods, which gathered momentum in the mid 1990s; and a series of food scandals involving the inclusion of the carcinogenic material dioxin in animal feeds in Belgium and the inclusion of human sewage in compound feeds in France have all helped to build up pressure for much stricter controls over food production methods.

One of the first moves by the new European Commission following its appointment in 1999 was to separate responsibility for food policy from the agricultural directorate headed by Franz Fischler. A new directorate for Health and Consumer Protection was formed, headed by an Irishman, David Byrne. Commission President Romano Prodi promised that a radical overhaul of European food policy would be a priority for the new directorate.

A White Paper published at the end of 1999 recommended a three-year program of reform of the E.U.'s mechanisms for controlling food safety, culminating in the establishment of a new European Food Authority in 2002. The White Paper also recommended a complete overhaul and simplification of the E.U.'s food safety regulations by 2004.

The White Paper's proposals were formally adopted by the European Commission at the beginning of this year. At the same time, the Commission decided that Byrne should take over responsibility for all food safety matters covering all elements of the food chain.

The new legal framework will cover animal feed, animal health and welfare, hygiene, contaminants and residues, novel food additives and the use of GMOs, labeling, flavorings, packaging and irradiation. It will include a proposal for a general food law on safety that will define areas such as the responsibility of feed manufacturers, farmers and food operators within the food chain; the traceability of feed, food and its ingredients; and a formal framework for risk analysis, including a rapid alert system for feed and food emergencies.

The new European Food Authority will have three major areas of responsibility — environment, public health and food safety. It will not, to some people's regret, be modeled after the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, which has regulatory powers. The E.F.A. will, however, cover the entire food chain, providing risk assessments based on scientific evidence designed to provide information for politicians to make decisions on legislation.

The European Food Authority is scheduled to have a budget of U.S.$30 million and will be run by a scientific panel of 14 leading scientists who will channel work through eight committees.

Following the Commis-sion's decision to adopt the proposals in the White Paper, Byrne said, "The proposals in the White Paper on Food Safety are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety. Consumer confidence has been badly affected by the various food alerts and crises of recent years and months. I believe that our proposals should fundamentally address consumers' legitimate concerns in this regard."

Main responsibility for ensuring that the new regulations are followed will fall to farmers and food companies. Farmers will have prime responsibility for food safety through systems of checking their production and harvesting methods and record-keeping. Food manufacturers and processors will have to introduce a hazard analysis system and keep records of safety checks. All food businesses will have to be registered and must be able to trace all ingredients to their source.

The proposals were sharply criticized by the E.U.'s Scientific Steering Committee, which said the E.F.A. would add yet another layer of bureaucracy and would lead to fragmentation of responsibility for the major aspects of food safety. The committee also said that more attention should be paid to international aspects, which will be essential to coordinate the implementation of the new proposals.

However, the proposals have been generally welcomed by the food and farming industries, which recognize the need for change. These industries do, nevertheless, believe it is essential that they are involved in drafting the regulations and also of the practicality of some of the proposals in terms of labeling and traceability.

The E.U. Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries said it welcomed the recognition of an integrated, whole food chain approach for securing food safety. "All participants in the food chain, including suppliers to agriculture (e.g. the animal feedstuffs sector), are jointly responsible for ensuring that controls are in place that will achieve food safety at all stages," the Confederation said, adding that it is essential for public confidence that the procedures introduced are transparent.

COCERAL, the Brussels-based European Committee representing the grain, oilseeds and animal feed trade, said it favored a global and integrated approach to food legislation. COCERAL said it welcomed the fact that "the Commission intends to include in this approach all levels of the food chain, from stable to table, and highlights the need for responsibilities to be clearly defined at all stages regardless of the means of production and distribution."

COCERAL said it was essential that the same regulations applied to organic production, feed materials used on farms or products sold on the farm as those for traditional products and sales.

The London-based Grain and Feed Trade Association, whose international trading contracts and arbitration procedures will bear the brunt of trading disputes likely to arise under the new proposals, said that while it appreciated the safety-first approach being adopted by the E.U., it was concerned that the overzealous demand for novel feed labeling — particularly for GMOs in soybeans and maize gluten — would massively affect the export of feed materials to the E.U. and their movement within member states. GAFTA said the proposed legislation for traceability was unworkable.

Brian Cooke, feed industry consultant, said the proposals for GMO labeling would cause very great problems for mixed boatloads. The labeling requirements could become extremely complicated, he said. There are also big problems in establishing traceability systems for flavorings and compound feeds derived from GMOs, Cooke noted.

The National Association of British and Irish Millers also views the issues of traceability and product integrity as some of the biggest problems likely to result from the Commission's proposals but does not expect major changes from its present operating system.

Alex Waugh, NABIM director general, points out that Britain already has in place a system of assured crop production and that all U.K. flour millers now require their grain to be supplied from an assured source.

The changes being made in Britain are part of the emerging pattern of new structures and codes of practice aimed at improving food safety already being put in place by other E.U. member states, which it is hoped will eventually work with the new Brussels organization.

Britain's early moves to improve public confidence in food and food safety are mainly due to the fact that it is the European country with the longest and by far the greatest exposure to the problems of BSE and the base for some of the earliest opposition to GM crops.

A new Food Standards Agency came into operation in April 2000. Headed by a former behavioral ecologist, Professor Sir John Krebs, who was awarded the Nobel Prize for biochemistry, the agency has an annual budget of U.S.$180 million and a staff of 500. The agency is responsible for enforcing and monitoring food standards at all levels, advising the government on food safety throughout the food chain from the farm gate to the supermarket and promoting the use of accurate information on food products.

In Germany, the discovery of BSE in the country's cattle herds at the end of last year forced the resignation of the Minister of Agriculture, Karl-Heinz Funke. Although only some 30 cases have so far been discovered, compared with the 180,000 over 13 years in Britain, beef consumption slumped by over 50% at the beginning of this year.

Funke was replaced by Renate Kunast, a lawyer and co-chairperson of the Green Party, as the country's first Minister of Food, Agriculture and Consumer Protection with instructions to devise a new approach to food safety.

Kunast has shaken the agricultural establishment in Germany by announcing a revolutionary change in policy to move away from factory farming to less intensive methods coupled with the encouragement to switch to more organic systems. "The BSE scandal marks the end of agricultural policy of the old style," she said in her first major policy speech. "As from now the consumer will be protected, not consumption."

Although Europe's grain-based industries recognize that they face considerable problems in implementing the proposed regulations once they are finalized, they point out that the Commission's plans will mainly extend and standardize many initiatives already being introduced in member states. Flour millers in several countries are now only taking grain produced under crop assurance schemes or from farmers who grow to known specific guidelines. These cover basic hygiene standards in harvesting, storage, handling and transport. In some cases, they can go as far as specifying varieties, sowing dates, pesticide and fertilizer use, harvesting dates, drying and storage.

In France, the Institute of Cereal and Forage Technologies is developing a scheme that provides detailed guidelines on cropping techniques, storage and record keeping. The French merchant Soufflet et Cie is already running a scheme that covers soil analysis, fertilizer and agrochemical use and use of chemicals in storage and transport.

Several French co-ops and millers are developing their own schemes, usually specifying varieties that can be grown. Similar systems are being set up by Danish millers such as Cerealia Denmark, which operates a scheme called Production in Balance. The Cereals Association of Ireland runs a grain assurance scheme that is compulsory for all malting barley and milling wheat.

In Britain, the United Kingdom Agricultural Supply Trade Association, which represents the merchant trade, has set up the Trade Assurance Scheme for Combinable Crops. This scheme now handles around 15 million tonnes of crop production and takes the farm assurance scheme a stage further by ensuring the safety of crops between the farm gate and food processor. It has a similar scheme covering feed processing, linked with the Assured British Meat Scheme, that aims to put in place a chain of safety for the whole meat industry.

The UKASTA feed scheme covers all stages of feed production, from sourcing ingredients to manufacture and delivery.

Two of the U.K.'s largest feed compounders, BOCM Pauls and ABN, the feed division of Associated British Foods, are now only buying grain from assured sources. ABF's feed and crop processing business, ABNA, recently appointed a director of food assurance, Helel Raine, a nutritionist with wide experience in the animal feed industry.

ABNA said it is significant that Raine's title is director of food, not feed, assurance. Commenting on her appointment, Raine said, "Food safety assurance isn't an optional extra for a company like ABNA. It is a core responsibility for the business as a whole. Consumers rightly expect maximum levels of safety in the food they eat. Retailers and catering outlets therefore need a supply chain that they can trust to give quality and safety assurance."

It now seems likely that the new systems to ensure food safety will be a long-awaited trigger for the reform of the CAP. After years of entrenched opposition from the E.U.'s farm ministers, one of the staunchest — Germany — is now taking the lead in calling for reform, backing the Commission's plans to change the emphasis from subsidizing production to supporting environmentally friendly rural development. These changes could make the much needed breakthrough in taking out distortions in world trade in agricultural products.