EU Parliament votes in new novel food rules – or did it?
According to the Parliament’s official communication the new rules were adopted 359 to 202 votes with 127 abstentions and it must now be approved by the council of ministers before coming into force.
However, one MEP’s assistant said two parts of the compromise deal were rejected during the vote – relating to the wording of article 9.3 and recital 27 on the uniform updating of the EU's novel food list.
It is now up to the Council to tell the Parliament if it can accept the slight wording change to these points.
If the council accepts – which is said to be likely – the regulation as a whole will be adopted and can come into force. Otherwise it could pass to a second reading, which could spell delays.
This technical stumbling block will come as something of an anti-climax in a process that has already overcome objections on cloning, nanotechnologies and member states’ right to veto since the first attempt to update back in 2008.
If it does push forward though it will see the replacement of a 20-year old piece of legislation, a change said to mark the dawn of a new era of food and nutrition innovation in Europe.
The European Consumer Organisation (BEUC) said it welcomed the modernisation – but added “deficiencies” on cloning and nanotechnologies meant it could only “half-heartedly” support the outcome.
Senior food policy officer Camille Perrin said in a statement: “It was high time the EU moved forward with novel foods. The current rules are almost 20 years old, which seems like an eternity considering how fast food technology evolves.”
However she added: “Boosting food innovation by making novel food authorisation faster and easier for manufacturers is fine so long as it does not put consumers’ safety on the back burner. Any food raising the slightest safety doubt should be kept off consumers’ plates.”
So what will the key changes be?
Cloning and nanotech
The regulation will include a 50% 'nanomaterial' threshold as a starting point, which could be gradually reduced with scientific progress around detection. Nanotechnology – the manipulation of matter at atomic and molecular scale - could help reduce sugar or salt content or slow down microbial activity but gaps in knowledge relating to possible health risks remain.
Novel food are foodstuffs not consumed in the EU before 1997. Examples of novel foods are chia seeds, flavonoids and rapeseed protein.
BEUC has urged the use of the precautionary principle for nanomaterials and the use of a 10% limit, as backed by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
“There is still a lot we don't know about the safety of nanomaterials and adequate safety tests are still lacking. The Parliament missed the chance to update the ‘engineered nanomaterial’ definition and in particular to make sure a substance is considered a nanomaterial as soon as it contains 10% nanoparticles."
Last month, the Parliament called for a far-reaching ban on cloning in the food supply.
However, BEUC says until, if ever, such a ban is officially formulated, “consumers will regrettably have no clue if the steak on their plate comes from a cloned cow’s offspring or not, as MEPs turned down amendments for labelling food from clones and their descendants”.
Redirecting the process
Applications will now be processed by the Commission and EFSA free of charge to ease costs for SMEs.
Previously it was down to member states to process the dossiers.
This took about three years on average and was not evenly distributed across member states. Indeed six member states received the vast majority of applications: the UK (45 applications), Ireland (22), Netherlands (21), Belgium (16), Finland (15) and France (14).
One sticking point in the negotiations however was whether the member states should retain their right to veto a decision by EFSA, which would send the application back for reassessment and arguable result in the same speed of processing.
History of safe consumption
The regulation will see the EU market opened up to products that have been traditionally consumed outside of the EU for many years, but for which there is no consumption data in Europe.
On this point BEUC warned: “The fact that a tropical plant has been consumed for decades in a third country with no harm reported does not mean it is safe. We count on EFSA to clarify the type of evidence needed to demonstrate a ‘history of safe use’ for exotic products.”
There will be a two-year transition period once the rules come into force.