What's this on our plates?

26 June 2008

What's this on our plates?

New foodstuffs are constantly appearing on the market. Exotic foods that in our part of the world are just being 'discovered', but also foodstuffs which have been artificially manufactured. An interview on food and drink with Kartika Liotard in her office at the European Parliament building in Brussels.

Kartika LiotardThat the EU is responsible for taking the initiative in regard to the regulation of the market for new foodstuffs appears uncontroversial. But from what angle? Is this to do with food safety or environmental protection, or should Europe be paying attention to the promotion of market innovation? Do we want to protect the European market? To monitor food prices? Or to satisfy demands from the World Trade Organisation (WTO)? Or do we want to protect the consumer?

These questions were raised by SP Euro-MP Kartika Liotard when she addressed an international gathering of experts from the food sector on 25th June. The experts were meeting in a chic Brussels hotel to discuss new foodstuffs, food labelling and health claims.

What is the most important aspect of this for the SP?

Kartika Liotard: "For me this has been clear from the start. If Europe has a role anywhere in this, then it should be to do with concern for the consumer. For me, therefore, consumer protection and food safety are central. Consumers are almost always the weakest party. They are dependent on the professional partners in the food chain, if only because of who has the knowledge."

You are Rapporteur for Novel Foods. Tell us about that.

"The European Parliament has 785 members. I'm fortunate to be able to take the lead in drawing up a report on new foodstuffs. And it means that I have gone particularly deeply into the subject and will shortly produce my advice to the Parliament regarding the way in which we in the EU should be dealing with new foodstuffs. Who doesn't like delicious food and drink? But it must also of course be wholesome. At the moment there are so many new products appearing on our plates that you really do need to know more about them. As a consumer you should be able to trust the fact that food and drink are in principle safe. Of course you must preserve and prepare it correctly, but what's in the shops you should be able to rely on."

That's logical, yet there was nevertheless a great deal of discussion over what you had to say.

"Yes, representatives of political parties, and of industry and trade don't always have the same views as to which interest should weigh heaviest. But also in this learned company there turned out to be a lot of discussion about what precisely is meant by Novel Foods. One talks about GMOs, or food that's been messed about with and knocked together, genetically manipulated. Some want to include foods from cloned animals, others don't. Under the definition of Novel Foods, you can also include foodstuffs from faraway countries which haven't yet appeared on the market here. Think of the kiwi, now completely normal, but not so long ago an exotic fruit which was only eaten in New Zealand. Then there are foodstuffs manufactured using nanotechnology, in which chemicals have been fooled around with. I believe myself that cloned foods should be excluded for ethical reasons. And that nanotechnology should also come under this definition. Whatever else, the EU should be monitoring the safety of foods."

Why all of this fuss and bother about this definition? Is it simply anxiety to do with what the farmer doesn't understand?

"It's so important, because the European Commission wants to be able to change the rules in order to be able to bring the new foodstuffs on to the market. But what do we find? There's no real definition. Now, if there's one thing that you must have in an EU law, then it is precisely what falls under that law. That's what every farmer understands to be the case. And other citizens too. The European Commission wants to see an EU Regulation brought into force in which it is completely unclear just what it is about. You can't do it. I am, as it happens, also a lawyer."

A lack of clarity isn't good for consumer confidence, you said in your speech.

"Exactly! With some of my staff I've gone through the whole Commission proposal paragraph by paragraph to see where food safety and consumer protection come into it. The European Commission agrees that these should be the most important priorities. There's no conflict between us on that point. But the Commission should have formulated much more precisely just what falls under the rules and what does not."

What is left out?

"Additives, colourings, enzymes and genetically manipulated organisms. These are already covered by separate EU measures. But for other things which we can come across in our food, the rules proposed by the Commission are too vague. For example, there's a reference to non-conventional breeding techniques which were not in large-scale use before 15th May 1997. That sounds to me too vague. And nanotechnology too is an immensely broad area. There are already foodstuffs on the market which are processed using chemical techniques. I think these also need looking at from the point of view of food safety."

And cloned food?

"I am certain that very many people do not want meat from cloned animals allowed into the EU. Most people who eat meat would rather have an honest steak. But once again the definition of what's cloned is crucial. Are the descendants of cloned animals also included or can these be processed into your burgers and sausages? We will have to answer this, because as things stand the European Commission is silent on the subject. The sector responsible for 'making' this meat has an interest in hearing us say 'yes'."

When will we be hearing more from you in your capacity as Rapporteur?

'At the moment I'm extremely busy with my report. The version for the first reading is almost ready. This will go ahead after 15th July. In the months following the subject will be discussed in several Committees of the European Parliament in Brussels and eventually it will come before the Plenary in Strasbourg. When the European Parliament has determined its position and there is an agreement with the EU Council of Ministers, then the Regulation will come into force. A Regulation and the rules it contains are binding on all citizens of EU member states and all European companies. I hope that it will be a clear piece of legislation that really puts the interests of the consumer first. We mustn't forget that this is about our everyday food and drink."

You are here