Speaking at the Brussels event, Chantal Bruetschy, head of unit for innovation and sustainability for the Commission's health and consumer
department (DG SANCO), said under the new novel food proposal, applicants from third countries would still be subject to strict assessment. She said the aim was to make access to the European market easier for food products with a history of safe consumption in their home country - distinguishing them for the first time from 'innovative' ingredients and products.
One member of the audience said she found this concept scary, and asked if it was not possible the move would see a flood of GM products from the US, particularly considering the pending EU-US trade deal TTIP, as well as potentially low quality or even unsafe products from markets like China.
Yet Bruetschy dismissed these fears as unfounded, and said it had nothing to do with the TTIP deal or the ability to import GM products, which would still not be covered under the novel food regulation and would therefore remain unchanged.
Talking with FoodNavigator after the event, she said that it was unreasonable to block third country products the way the EU had been doing under the 2008 system.
"Imagine if we went to China and they demanded a risk assessment on bread, which we have been eating almost every day all this time."
She said this idea of a history of regular safe consumption was key to the proposal and ensuring consumer safety.
Does history mean safety?
However, Camille Perrin, speaking at the workshop on behalf of the European consumer group BEUC, said this definition was a point of concern. "The fact that a product has been consumed for many years in a country should not be assumed to mean it is safe."
She added that inadequate monitoring may have failed to record any adverse effects, and clear guidance and criteria would be needed on the type of evidence required to demonstrate a history of safe use in these countries.
A reasoned safety objection
The proposal for changes to the 2008 novel foods regulation would see assessment responsibilities shifting from the individual safety authorities of member states to a centralised EFSA-run system. Member states would only retain the right to raise reasoned objections to decisions on safety for the traditional foods from third countries.
According to an impact assessment by the European Parliament, some stakeholders wanted exact requirements on what would qualify for a member state safety objection, as well as deadlines for this process in order to speed up application turnaround and avoid duplication, two of drivers behind the changes.
"As the notion of ‘history of safe consumption’ still remains relatively loosely defined in the proposal, there is a risk that reasoned safety objections will be made by member states," the report, based on interview feedback, said.
"More consideration should be given to the exact requirements for a ‘notification’ of a traditional food, particularly given the discourse surrounding the concept of ‘history of safe use’ to ensure that reasoned safety objections by member states and EFSA are minimised and that consumer safety is not compromised."