Thursday, 19 April 2018

EFSA studies to be made public in proposed General Food Law reform

On 11 April the EU Commission announced a new legislative proposal for improving transparency in scientific studies about food, by reforming the General Food Law (Regulation (EC) No 178/2002) The Proposal is based on a European Citizens’ Initiative and supported by the findings of the fitness check on general food law, as both pointed out issues relating to transparency of the studies. What is surprising is that the press release points out that the fitness check is in need of updating even though it was published in 2018. The General Food Law fitness check has been a long time coming, as it had been announced from 2013.

The Proposal suggests a targeted revision of the General Food Law. It is worth remembering that the General Food Law was introduced in response to the food crises in late 90s, such as the BSE crisis, which had a big impact on consumers’ trust to food safety. But which are they key changes included in the proposal?

All studies submitted to EFSA are to be made public, proactively and automatically, thus increasing transparency with the exclusion of confidential information. In practice, when an applicant submits a dossier for a study they will submit a confidential and a non-confidential version. The confidential version will be made public immediately and the confidential version will be assessed by EFSA and additional data may be made available to the public, if EFSA qualifies the as non-confidential.

A consultation procedure is to be established to allow stakeholders as well as the general public to have their say on submitted studies. What is important is that the consultation will include not only studies for the authorisation of new substances but also studies on the renewal of previously authorised substances. This ensures that renewal processes will not avoid the scrutiny of the public as new scientific evidence as to their effects may come to light after the initial authorisation. 

Furtermore, it includes measures on the governance of EFSA including the choice of experts for the scientific panels of EFSA to be made from a pool of candidates put forward by the Member States, thus involving them further in the process, as well as allowing EFSA to commission studies on a case to case bases in exceptional circumstances, such as when a substance is highly controversial.

This Proposal will not necessarily mean a higher standard of protection for consumers. What it means is that citizens will be able to be more involved in the law making process in this area and the legislators and will be held accountable with greater ease. That it will be possible to check the objectivity of the evidence used to inform regulation. Food law legislation can be highly divisive and one that generates great interest from civic society from environmental organisations to parent associations for issues such as GMOs or food additives. 

This signifies a new era in food law where citizens are more involved than ever before; this can be seen also in the origin of the proposal, a European Citizens’ Initiative, only one of four successful ones making this truly bottom-up regulation. Even though that particular initiative was focused on stopping glyphosate the Commission took on the comments on improving transparency to effect a lasting structural change. The Commission appears keen to push the proposal forward aiming for it to be adopted by mid-2019.

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