The food industry is in danger of harming itself with its recent lobbying against the further harmonisation and deepening of EU food regulation.
The evidence is clear. Sound and universal regulation is a powerful tool in re-building consumer trust in food quality.
And consumer trust in the food industry needs re-building. A survey by Globescan last year of France, the UK, Germany and Italy found that 36 per cent of consumers believed food safety is worse today than 20 years ago, andanother 22 per cent believed it no better.
Buffeted by BSE and a consecutive string of other food safety scares, European consumers are more concerned still.
Against this backdrop, the top priority of the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA), oft-stated, is the rebuilding of consumer trust. For which reason, the CIAA stronglybacked the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Yet, the lobby group and the manufacturers it represents are now steering back towards a classic anti-regulatory stance.
From novel foods and additives to food labeling and environment issues, the CIAA is majoring on the staple business argument that less regulation is needed, not more. Regulations are costly,administratively burdensome, and stifling of innovation, the confederation argues.
On many food issues, the CIAA now favours the retention of existing non-standard national regulation, no regulation or self regulation.
As the European Commission focuses on replacing a myriad of national and local regulations with a firm central platform, and on developing universal rules to restore consumer trust, the CIAA'sresistance sets up an uncomfortable inconsistency.
Is it possible the food industry believes the Commission is simply unable to discern what regulation is necessary to restore public trust?
If so, the evidence suggests otherwise.
The creation of a general European food law in 2002 and of EFSA as the EU safety regulator brought new systems of cross border public alerts and regulatory requirements that served to makenational governments - and companies - more vigilant in ensuring product safety.
The introduction coincided with a sharp recovery in public confidence. Again from Globescan, the number of people in France, Germany, the UK and Italy who cited food safety as a greater prioritythan price, nutrition, quality or shortage, fell to 44 per cent in 2004 from 55 per cent two years ago.
Moreover, the Commission has proven impressive as an overall arbiter between states, pushing governments to do things reason might counsel but which national sentiments might make impolitic.
Deeper studies, by academics, also affirm that a more unified approach to food safety is the surest means to a restoration of trust.
Indeed, Zurich-based political scientists Thomas Bernauer and Ladina Caduff go so far as blaming the current mix of local, national and EU-wide governance for keeping concerns about food safety so high on the public agenda.
A single, powerful authority such as the Food and Drug Administration in the US is better placed to establish its credentials as trustworthy in policing safety issues on consumers' behalf.
The lower public profile and lesser regulatory role of EFSA, combined with the multitude of responsible authorities, makes for a public that does not know who to trust.
Bernauer and Caduff argue that more centralisation of responsibility in the Commission is likely to be the surest path to restored public confidence.
Such centralisation would have to involve the shifting of resources to the EU level, expanding its capacity for monitoring and enforcing compliance with food safety standards.
The regulatory authority would also be given more power under this scenario, and a greater remit, to include labelling issues, about which European consumers care a great deal.
The European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) recently found that 77 per cent of the consumers it surveyed claimed an interest in nutrition and 81 per cent said they welcomed nutritional informationon the pack.
Yet, Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso said last week he intends to scrap the EU's new proposals on food labelling.
The food industry's clamour for a regulatory retreat appears to be delivering results.
Those results, however, are sadly removed from a rebuilding of consumer trust.
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