The new European Food Safety Authority is still without a home and under the menace of a reduced budget. A decision on the location is urgently needed otherwise credibility is at risk, claims Lasse Skovby Rasmusson, vice president of food ingredients company Danisco.
Writing in a recent issue of ErhvervsBladet, Skovby Rasmusson highlights the current problems - political at their core - that are stopping the EFSA from making a real start. When the EU Commission presented its white paper on food safety in January 2000, with the EFSA playing a central role, it became apparent that food safety had been given a high priority in the EU but while the framework for EFSA's area of responsibility seems to be in place, the physical framework remains a problem that could make it difficult for EFSA to get started, states Skovby Rasmusson.
According to the Danisco vice president - and his sentiments are shared by many in the food industry - one major obstacle to recruitment is that employing the necessary, highly qualified people is very difficult as long as their actual place of work is uncertain - whether it be Helsinki, Parma, Brussels or some other city.
At the moment, the EFSA is temporarily located in Brussels, but its future home remains undecided. That decision lies with the European Council of heads of state and government, and so far, writes Skovby Rasmusson, the Council has not shown determination in reaching a decision.
When the EU leaders gathered at the December 2001 summit in Laeken, Belgium, there seemed to be a good chance of resolving the question of EFSA's location. At that time, it was generally felt that the decision had been under way long enough, and the expectation was that EFSA could finally get down to business, the article continues. This did not occur and the Belgian presidency had to announce its failure to reach an agreement. A majority of the member states pointed to Helsinki as the future home for EFSA but this was vehemently opposed by Italy who wanted Parma for the EFSA base.
Since then, the decision on the EFSA location has not even appeared on the agendas of recent EU presidencies. Whether it is fear of repeating the Laeken failure, or there are other reasons why the Council has not taken it up again, remains unclear, writes Skovby Rasmusson.
"But for the sake of food safety and the consumers, the Member States should come out in the open and settle the matter once and for all. Otherwise, the credibility of EFSA and the EU in terms of food safety is at risk. And that is something we cannot afford, " he emphasises. And how right Skovby Rasmusson is. With EU enlargement imminent, the need for a solid, co-ordinated, organised and efficient authority is even more pressing.
" The enlargement has given us 10 new EU members who must adjust to the EU food safety requirements. And for that reason, it is important that EFSA gets the most optimal working conditions. We hope the Danish government will put an effort into having the location of EFSA determined during the Greek presidency, " he said.
" We need European cooperation in order to create a high level of food safety, and it would be a great pity if good EU initiatives in this area are delayed on account of discussions as to where EFSA should be located, which cannot be said to be very credible, " added Skovby Rasmusson.
A further obstacle to EFSA movement is the decision by the European Parliament in November 2002 to retain 50 per cent of EFSA's 2003 grant because its permanent location had not yet been decided. According to Skovby Rasmusson the move could be seen as an attempt to put pressure on the Council to come up with a permanent address."If it has the desired effect, that is fine. But it will also make it even harder for EFSA to get down to work," he said. The Management Board of EFSA has requested the European Parliament to release the full grant and has also stressed the need for a permanent address for the EFSA as soon as possible, making several requests to the Council for a solution in the past six-month period.
Food safety is on the lips of all industry participants, associations and consumer bodies. With the integration of the White Paper on Food Safety into European law the EU showed its absolute wilingness and belief in the notion that food safety must be a top priority in Europe. But the lack of action today is stirring feelings of disappointment and concern. Europe has run the first fifty metres, it mustn't tire before finishing the last fifty. And with the food industry boasting an annual production value of €600 billion it simply can not afford to flag before the finishing line.