Members of the European Parliament (MEPs) have backed plans to ensure data used in decisions on food safety is made publicly available.
The plenary vote on amendments to the General Food Law saw approval for a move to publish safety studies before a product is authorized to go to market. It was adopted by 427 votes in favor, 172 against and 67 abstentions.
A majority of MEPs agreed the law should be revised so that data relevant for environmental and health protection underpinning European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) evaluations are made public. Currently, EFSA only provides summaries of these studies.
Parliament supported making public the non-confidential parts of industry applications submitted to EFSA for authorizing food additives, pesticides or GMOs. It also agreed on criteria to decide what information can be kept confidential, e.g. the trademark under which a product will be marketed or detailed descriptions of preparations.
Introduction of a new pre-submission procedure will allow the application process to be sped up with EFSA able to give advice to the applicant on how to provide required information.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) director general, Monique Goyens, said it was glad the EU Parliament chose to stand by consumers.
“Public controversies around glyphosate, aspartame or bisphenol A have shaken consumer confidence in the way the EU regulates food safety. If we are to rebuild consumer trust, we must end the secrecy around the studies used by EFSA to appraise the safety of substances ending up in our food.”
Martin Pigeon, Corporate Europe Observatory’s agribusiness researcher, said ending secrecy around industry data used by the EU for granting market approvals has been a demand by scientists and NGOs for years.
“This is not a tokenistic measure: at stake here is the possibility of finally enabling independent scientific scrutiny of EU food safety decisions. This measure can deliver long-term positive change on many different substance assessments. It is a direct outcome of millions of people throughout Europe mobilising around the glyphosate scandal,” he said.
“We look forward to the negotiations between the Parliament, European Commission and member states for a final compromise on the text, but, after many years of work, getting a good data transparency legislation in food safety in the EU now seems within reach.”
Sophie Perroud, policy coordinator at the Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL), welcomed the result.
“The European Parliament has shown it stands for the right of EU citizens, independent scientists and civil society to know how decisions related to food safety can potentially impact our health and the environment. Now all EU institutions have to swiftly start negotiations and finalize putting words into action before the next EU elections.”
Amendments including deleting the overriding public interest, a widening of the scope of confidentiality on industry data, an obligation for EFSA to prove that dissemination of data does not harm business interests, and a delay to the time of publication of EFSA conclusions did not pass the vote.
Unless there is overriding public interest in disclosure, confidentiality may be granted to a list of non-safety related items. The applicant bears the burden of proving that disclosure of the information would significantly harm its interest.
However, lawmakers did back some amendments which could hamper full transparency, according to BEUC.
These include creation of a ‘Board of Appeal’ for industry to contest EFSA confidentiality decisions, which BEUC said will delay publication of safety data and including “innovative ideas” in the list of potential confidential items. The consumer group said this vague and unspecific language paves the way for abusive confidentiality claims.
Goyens said upcoming inter-institutional talks must fix some flaws, which could water down impact of the proposed reform.
“The ‘Board of Appeal’ allowing industry to contest EFSA confidentiality decisions will be an extra administrative burden for an agency whose resources are already under strain. EU policymakers must ensure no safety data remains hidden from the public. To do so, they should close any potential loophole in the list of information items for which EFSA might grant confidential treatment.”
Bart Staes, Greens/European Free Alliance group spokesperson on pesticides, said the EC must not keep studies on the risk assessment of pesticides, genetic engineering and additives in food under wraps.
“Transparency from risk assessments of pesticides, genetic engineering and additives to the decision on authorization must not depend on the goodwill of the food industry. We cannot rely on the industry to judge whether its own products are harmful. We need more scrutiny by independent scientists.”
In April this year, the Commission revealed plans to update the General Food Law and require EFSA to publish the non-confidential parts of studies submitted by companies when they request EU market authorization for their products.
The proposal is a follow-up to the European Citizens’ Initiative on glyphosate, which saw more than a million people call on the EU to increase transparency in EFSA scientific assessments. It also follows a fitness check of the General Food Law, launched in 2014 and completed in January 2018 by the Commission.
The report will be referred back to the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) committee, who will start negotiations with the Council and European Commission for a first reading of the agreement.
European ambassadors meeting in the Committee of Permanent representatives (Coreper) agreed the Council position on the regulation for transparency and sustainability of EU risk assessment in the food chain.
The Council will start negotiations with the European Parliament as soon as the latter has agreed its stance. A qualified majority is needed for adoption by the Council, in agreement with the European Parliament.
Elisabeth Köstinger, Austrian federal minister for sustainability and tourism and president of the Council, said concerns of citizens about the safety of food have not gone unheard.
“Our objective is to grant people greater access to scientific studies while at the same time strengthening the scientific base of risk management. I believe we have struck a balance between transparency and protection of innovation in the European agro-food industry.”
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