New rules on the transparency of Europe’s risk assessment process in the food chain have come into force.

When a company wants to market a new food additive, pesticide or GMO, it submits studies to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to show the product is safe.

The revised legislation means all submitted scientific studies and data will be disclosed to the public on EFSA’s website. There are exceptions to this if reasons of confidentiality and commercial harm can be justified.

To identify whether other relevant data or studies are available, EFSA will consult the public and other partners before preparing a scientific output.

Boost public trust
The legislation was developed in response to a European Citizens’ Initiative on glyphosate and a review of the General Food Law regulation completed in January 2018. It was adopted by the European Council and European Parliament in June 2019.

The European Commission will do fact-finding missions at laboratories in the next four years to assess whether they apply the relevant standards for tests and studies submitted to EFSA as part of the application process.

Commissioner Stella Kyriakides, in charge of Health and Food Safety, said more transparency on EU scientific work on food will reinforce consumer trust.

“These new transparency rules directly respond to calls from our citizens. We are putting them in place at a time when the Commission has taken a strong commitment, through our Farm to Fork Strategy, in ensuring greater sustainability so that that the way we produce and consume our food is healthy not just for us, but also for our planet,” she said.

New arrangements are not being implemented retroactively, which means there will be a period of adjustment during which much of EFSA’s work will continue under the previous rules and legal provisions.

Bernhard Url, EFSA’s executive director, described it as a “pivotal moment” for the food safety system.

“EFSA is grateful to legislators for giving us this exciting opportunity to bring citizens and stakeholders closer to our work and to benefit from greater scrutiny of our working processes and practices,” he said.

Protecting innovation
Commenting on the proposals when they were endorsed in April 2019,  European Consumer Organization (BEUC) Director General Monique Goyens said the EU was taking transparency to the next level.

“Public controversies around glyphosate, aspartame or bisphenol A have eroded consumer confidence in the way the EU decides what food is safe and what is not. It was high time the EU stopped the secrecy around the studies EFSA relies on for its assessment of substances that end up in our food,” she said.

“We will have to remain vigilant, however, on how the new transparency rules work in practice. Independent scientists should be able to access, use and quote safety data produced by the food industry without having to seek permission.”

Also reacting in 2019, FoodDrinkEurope, which represents the food and drink industry, supported the objective of the proposals but raised some issues.

“FoodDrinkEurope has expressed its concern on the potential impact the proposal may have on the competitiveness of the EU food and drink industry and welcomes initiatives that have been introduced to the regulation to protect innovation within the EU risk assessment model.”

The European Commission, EFSA and member states are also working on a plan to ensure coherent risk communication throughout the risk analysis process.

Dual food quality findings
Meanwhile, the EU Commission has published results from the second part of an EU-wide quality comparison of food products sold under the same branding.

The Joint Research Centre (JRC) work found variances did not follow a geographical pattern. Sensory differences were found in 10 of 20 products tested.

Věra Jourová, vice-president for transparency and values, said there can be no unjustified differentiation of products in the EU.

“This is why we strengthened our consumer laws and empowered consumers in this regard. These laws must be vigorously enforced, also on this issue, and the commission stands ready to support the authorities, if needed.”

The first part of the study, published in 2019, found differences in ingredients for about one-third of items tested, which were identically or similarly branded.

The follow-up work tested 20 products that had shown differences in the first study. Samples of each were purchased in five to 10 member states. Testers were specifically trained for such a role.

Didier Reynders, commissioner for justice, said consumers need to know what they are buying.

“They must not be misled by the same or a similar front-of-pack (information) implying that goods are the same when they are not. This is unfair and contrary to EU consumer law.”

Further studies are planned from the JRC in 2021 and 2022 to look at the evolution of products in the first batch of tests in 2019. An amended directive to clarify when dual quality of products is a misleading practice is scheduled to apply across the EU beginning May 28, 2022.

(To sign up for a free subscription to Food Safety News, click here.)