Who Should Set Rules on Food Safety, Health, Welfare in the EU?

UK - A new government report of the roles of the EU and the national government in legislating for animal health and welfare and food safety indicates overall support for the current balance, while highlighting some areas of concern, including on genetic modification (GMOs).
calendar icon 25 July 2013
clock icon 6 minute read

While many expressed support for the current balance on the impact of EU law on animal health, welfare and food safety issues in the UK, there are several areas for improvement.

That is the main conclusion of a new report, 'Review of the Balance of Competences between the United Kingdom and the European Union: Animal Health and Welfare and Food Safety Report' from the UK Government.

A series of these Reviews - 32 in all - have been or will be prepared on the 'Review of the Balance of Competences' between EU and national law, outlined by the Foreign Secretary in July 2012. They aim to provide a detailed assessment of what membership of the EU means for the UK national interest, both now and for the future.

This report focuses on the impact of EU law on animal health, welfare and food safety issues in the UK, with the principal goal of informing the public and political debate on the EU, both in the UK and across Europe.

It is a collaboration between the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) and the Food Standards Agency (FSA), covering animal health (including veterinary medicines), animal welfare and food safety (including feed, food labelling and food quality and compositional standards).

The report draws on the evidence received between November 2012 and February 2013. A total of 64 pieces of formal written evidence were received from a broad range of respondents, including individuals and organisations and supporting evidence collected at a number of workshops in London, Belfast, Edinburgh and Brussels.

"The Review found general agreement that the internal market produced real benefits for the UK"

The EU internal market - and free movement of animals, animal products and food within it - has been the main driver for the development of competence in these areas, according to the Review. Other drivers are the need to protect public health and consumer interests, the avoidance of outbreaks of animal disease and a desire to protect the well-being of animals.

Food and animal feed are traded extensively, both within the EU and internationally, with total UK exports worth £18.2 billion in 2011. The majority of UK agricultural exports are to other EU Member States and 69 per cent (by value) of the UK’s food imports also come from the EU.

UK law on animal health and welfare and food safety derives largely from requirements set at EU level. In relation to animals, this often reflects international standards set by the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE) with the active participation of the UK.

When considering the EU internal market for food, animals and animal products, the Review found general agreement that the internal market produced real benefits for the UK.

Animal health

Civil society organisations with an interest in animal protection called for increased flexibility in EU legislation for the control of animal diseases to allow Member States the opportunity to take account of national circumstances, according to the report. They felt that harmonisation at EU level was not always the best approach and, in some cases, may actually impede UK action. Notwithstanding this, these respondents also saw the importance of a coordinated EU approach to animal disease control, including the sharing of resources, expertise and intelligence.

The report states that a number of respondents from various sectors claimed the UK has positively influenced the level of the EU’s standards in food, animal health and animal welfare law.

Animal welfare

On animal welfare, several civil society respondents in particular argued that the UK should continue to take the lead in setting high welfare standards. However, others - representing industry interests - raised concerns that this could put UK businesses at a competitive disadvantage.

It was recognised among respondents that the UK was right to press for the sentience of animals to be formally recognised within the body of the Lisbon Treaty, which now requires this to be reflected in most EU policy.

Food safety

The Review highlights consumer survey data suggesting that UK consumers are largely unaware of the role the EU plays in making food law. Only 11 per cent preferred food law to be made by the EU, although this figure rose to 23 per cent when people were given some information about EU legislation.

General aspects of legislation

"Genetically modified food and feed was raised as an area of concern"

Some respondents across all sectors stated a preference for legislation that is less prescriptive and focused on outcomes although there were a few who argued that prescriptive approaches help smaller businesses.

Fair competition within the EU internal market relies to a great extent on harmonised rules that create a level playing field, and some felt that when Member States implement, interpret or enforce EU law differently this impacts on competition.

Concerns were raised that better (or smart) regulation principles are not always applied effectively within the EU. In particular, some respondents from government and trade associations stated that impact assessments are not always undertaken by the European Commission and those that are carried out can be of variable quality. Some trade association and civil society organisations stated that they found the EU hard to engage with and insufficiently transparent.

There was consensus that animal health, welfare and food law should be risk-based. However, there were a range of perceptions over whether this happened in reality; a number of respondents argued that EU risk assessment is generally science-based but there were concerns that some risk management decisions on animal health, welfare and food law had been disproportionate.

Respondents gave several examples where broader societal concerns and other factors had been influential in decision-making. Genetically modified food and feed was raised as an area of concern, where some respondents argued the EU applies a political overlay that disrupts trade and stifles innovation, putting all EU countries at a competitive disadvantage.

Looking ahead: TTIP

The Review concludes by looking to the future. In February 2013, it was announced that the EU and the United States of America (USA) are to launch negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).

A bilateral free trade agreement between the EU and USA would potentially create the world’s largest common market for trading goods and services, states the report. This offers the opportunity to shape global norms but may also give rise to further complex issues concerning the balance of national and EU competences.

Further Reading

You can view the full report from the UK government by clicking here.

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