1 May 2015

Food safety │ Will high safety standards and consumer protection prevail over economic growth?

The EU food safety system guarantees a high level of consumer protection thanks to, among others, the precautionary principle in its food risk assessment and the ‘farm-to-fork’ approach which includes regulation of the whole production process.
Ensuring that food safety regulations are sufficiently stringent to protect consumer health, while at the same time safeguarding the effective functioning of the internal market, is a continuous challenge. The rise of new technologies and discussions with third countries to align compatibility of regulations and standards in light of trade agreements bring additional challenges to policymakers who want to maintain the EU’s high standards.
Citizen’s trust in the food supply chain in Europe has eroded over the past years as a consequence of food scares such as BSE, dioxin in feed and the horsemeat scandal. This decrease in consumer confidence leads to distrust which has economic but also socio-political effects.
Europe has undertaken activities to rebuild citizens’ trust in food safety while simultaneously increasing competitiveness for the food sector. One example is the introduction of the Novel Food Regulation (Regulation (EC) No 258/97) by the European Commission to facilitate the marketing of food and food ingredients produced by new technologies. As the Commission wants a simpler, clearer and more efficient authorisation procedure, a revised proposal was presented in December 2013. With the rise of new technologies, assessments are necessary to evaluate if consumer protection can be guaranteed when these technologies are authorised under the Novel Food Regulation.
To further increase European competitiveness, the EU has stepped up its engagement with major emerging economies on trade policies over the past years. Currently, one of the most important on-going free trade negotiations are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations, launched in 2013. TTIP is considered by EU leaders as a way to lift the ailing EU economy but at the same time, these trade agreements cause controversy as concerns arise over maintaining the EU’s high food safety standards. The perception exists that the EU has more stringent food safety regulations than the US and therefore a higher level of consumer protection than the US. Observers fear that these high standards might be at risk to accommodate the trade agreement.
However, in order to reconcile competitiveness and citizen’s trust in food safety, many challenges need to be overcome. More technologies will arise in the coming years which will bring new food products to the market and although these new technologies can bring substantial growth in food production, they will stretch the limits of current Regulations. Solutions will need to be found to guarantee EU citizens can benefit from new technological processes without detriment consumer protection.
Next to that, trade agreements with key markets around the world will remain a continuous challenge in the coming years. These negotiations put pressure on food safety regulations as different norms and standards are subject to discussion and need to be aligned.
While tackling these challenges, specific attention must be given to the current public distrust in the capacity of the food industry and of public authorities to ensure that food is safe. Consumers want be ensured that high safety standards and consumer protection will always prevail as priority over economic values.
This topic will be debated at the European Business Summit on 6th of May http://www.ebsummit.eu/programme

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