“We live in a strange world these days,” EC health chief Vytenis Andriukaitis reflected last week (21 February).
“The internet and new communication tools mean that citizens have any information they want at their fingertips. Thinking back on my childhood, I can hardly believe the speed at which news spreads.”
While this has largely been an empowering force for European citizens, the difficulty in distinguishing between ‘facts’ and ‘fake news’ poses a serious threat to the trust people place in the food system, he told the International Food Journalism Festival in Turin.
Lies spread 'further and faster'
According to Andriukaitis’s assessment, ‘fake news’ spreads both “furtherst and fastest”.
“Fake news, misinformation, lies – whatever name we give it, there is no denying that it is rife these days,” he observed.
Inaccurate reporting in the arena of food safety and regulation is commonplace, the European Commissioner believes. Some of it, such as stories that the EU will regulate the size of cucumbers, is “honestly laughable”. Some is more sinister and “can seriously damage citizen’s trust in food system and science in general,” he warned.
Rebuilding trust: From fake news to glyphosate
In response to this trend, the EU is determined to demonstrate that it hears the concerns of European citizens and responds to them. It wants to build a food chain and regulatory system that is more transparent in order to combat misinformation with facts.
An example of this approach, Andriukaitis said, is framework the EU is forging under the General Food Law to increase transparency in food safety risk assessment, with particular changes to the European Food Safety Agency’s (EFSA) approval process.
According to the EC, European citizens report a lack of trust over the transparency of EFSA’s risk analysis, particularly for its authorisation dossiers.
The proposed changes are a follow-up to the European Citizens' Initiative urging glyphosate to be denied a license renewal, which was supported by more than one million citizens.
Despite these concerns, glyphosate was controversially re-authorised for a five year period in late 2017. Eighteen Member States voted in favour of the license, representing a qualified majority of 65.71% of the EU population - just over the 65% threshold required to push authorisation through.
At the time, campaigners suggested that European regulators had bowed to pressure from agri-business giant Monsanto and ignored the concerns of citizens.
Transparency to build trust or compromise deal?
The EC especially hopes to answer concerns expressed in the glyphosate Citizens' Initiative regarding the transparency of the scientific studies used to evaluate pesticides. It also follows a fitness check of the General Food Law, which was completed last year.
Last week, the European Parliament and Council reached a provisional agreement on the changes as part of the triologue negotiation process.
“We heard [Citizens’ Initiative] call, listened to the requests, and acted on them. I am happy to see that the voices of those citizens had a tangible effect on EU policy.
“The agreement will ensure that there is greater transparency and independence of studies in the area of food," Andriukaitis said.
The Commission will also develop a “comprehensive” risk communication strategy and strengthen governance on scientific communication, he continued.
“Ultimately, I hope that this will boost consumer confidence and trust in the EU's food policy and in the entire food safety system.”
However, when these changes were debated a number of MEPs expressed concern that opening up confidential information could undermine the competitiveness of European food businesses.
According to industry body FoodDrinkEurope, the final regulation actually represents a “compromise” between the need to inform consumers and the protect intellectual property of food businesses, particularly around novel food authorisation.
“FoodDrinkEurope sees that this agreement strikes a balance between necessary public access to information and the legitimate protection of innovation of our industry, which is essential to the future of the agri-food sector. This will ensure a positive investment environment for EU food and drink companies,” the group said in a statement.
EC in listening mode: labelling
European policy makers are also responding to calls from Member States, including Italy and France, to implement country of origin labelling requirements.
The Commission said in September last year it will register a European Citizens' Initiative called ‘Eat ORIGINal! Unmask your food' which aims to make country of origin labelling (COOL) mandatory for all food products.
According to the text, this will prevent fraud, protect public health and guarantee consumers' right to information.
“Here in Italy you are very proud of the quality and high standards of Italian food products, and of 'Made in Italy'. As a European, so am I. We all should be as Europeans.
“I hear Italian and other calls on origin labelling," Andriukaitis said last week.
The EC response: The regulation on origin indication for the primary ingredient of foodstuffs, which will apply from April 2020.
“The aim of this legislation is to prevent misleading practices, such as 'Italian-sounding foods', and ensure that consumers are fully informed as to what they eat,” Andriukaitis noted.
“It will ensure a high level of transparency and give EU citizens clear information about the origin of food on the market.”
This is an initiative that European food makers have roundly opposed arguing that it could undermine the single market while adding cost and complexity to their businesses.
Andriukaitis insisted this would not be the outcome of the legislation: “Let’s be clear about the objective: guaranteeing consumer information shouldn’t compromise the integrity of the internal market.”
Food fraud and scandals: Tougher penalties on the cards?
Food fraud and scandals – from horsemeat to fiprolnil and, most recently the Polish beef issue – have done their fair share to undermine public confidence.
Again, Andriukaitis stressed Brussels has been resolute in its response. Following the 2017 detection of fipronil – a chemical that is banned for use on animals destined to enter the food chain – in eggs produced in Belgium, the EC called a Ministerial Conference to address food fraud and adopted measures, including updating the EU’s crisis management food safety plan.
Earlier last week (19 February), the EC adopted this update, which will allow the creation of a ‘crisis unit’ where necessary. In a statement, the Health and Food Safety Directorate General said: “This new General Plan first draws on the lessons learnt from crises in recent years, like E. coli in 2011 or fipronil in 2017, which have shown the need for enhanced coordination between the different authorities at the Union and national levels, as regards the management of cross-border incidents but also the communication around it.”
However, as the media investigation uncovering the slaughtering of sick cattle for human consumption in Poland this year shows, Andriukaitis acknowledged “there is still much to do”.
“Food fraud puts at risk the trust of our citizens in food safety systems. And it hurts us all, in every Member State. So we cannot take a relaxed attitude to it – as I have said before and repeat again, this will always backfire. Food fraud, like any criminal activity, should be punished,” Andriukaitis stated adding that the EC is currently doing “groundwork” on the issue.