The food industry, one of Europe's largest manufacturing sectors, has hit the headlines recently. But not in a way corporate communications would like.
The Lactalis baby milk recall scandal, the affair over contaminated eggs and the contentious debate over renewing the license of glyphosate, the main ingredient in a widely-used weed killer, have been shaking consumer confidence. How safe is Europe's food?
Euronews correspondent Stefan Grobe sat down with Bernhard Url, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
Euronews: Let me start with a personal question. Do you buy and eat organic food?
Url: Yes, I do. I buy organic food, I eat organic food, but not exclusively. I mix it.
Euronews: Do you recommend that to people?
Url: I think it's a good quality differentiation. So it's not about food safety, but it's about quality and the way food is produced. And I think there organic food makes a difference in the way plants are grown, in the way animals are treated. It makes a difference and it's good to have organic food.
Euronews: So obviously, people talk a lot about food safety these days. We had the glyphosate controversy a few months ago, we had the scandal over contaminated eggs and now we are seeing the Lactalis affair. In light of these issues, how confident can the European consumer be that what they eat is not damaging to their health?
Url: Well, there I think we can really give good news to the European consumers. They can be very confident in what they eat. Food safety is high on the agenda of the menber states, of the food producers, of the European institutions. And together, if you look back 15 years now to the new general food law in Europe, it was brought into place in 2002, it has really made a difference. And whether you eat your apple in Parma or in Lisbon, you can be sure that the saftey of these products is guaranteed.
Euronews: In the headlines right now, of course, the Lactalis issue. I want to ask you about this. Your academic background is in milk hygiene and milk technology, which I found very interesting. From your perspective, is the crisis mechanism working, is it strong enough in the EU to deal with issues like Lactalis?
Url: There is nothing like zero risk. It can happen. It will most likely be an environmental contamination and then the task and the art is to be fast in detecting it, to be fast in communicating and to do a fast recall. And all of this happened in France, done by the company but also by the competent authorities in France. We have in Europe a rapid alert system where one member state informs all other member states about food incidents. This was also done with this Lactalis case in December. So the system in Europe is strong and it works.
Euronews: Your agency routinely examines dozens of products and substances, but only one made headlines last year and that was, of course, glyphosate. Your office was part of a very controversial decision-making process. In retrospect, what are the lessons learned from glyphosate?
Url: Glyphosate is a case where we worked very carefully together with the member states. All 28 member states came to the same conclusion together with us. And the European Chemicals Agency came to the same conclusion, and WTO and Switzerland and the U.S. and Canada... So scientifically, the case is, so to speak, clear. Politically, I think, it's a complete different discussion. It's about what way of agriculture, what production model do we want to have in Europe, what about the use of agrochemicals in agricultural production.
Euronews: One of the issues that was raised during that entire debate was transparency. People said the process is too opaque, it's not transparent enough. What are you saying to this?
Url: EFSA has published about 6,000 pages of background documents about glyphosate. But there is one issue, and I think this needs a political answer. And this tension is between full transparency of all data we use for coming to an assessment, and we would love to publish all these data; it's about science and science means openness and scrutiny. But there is also a legitimate interest of industry for business confidentiality. And there is a tension between full transparency and protecting intellectual property rights of industry. This is not a scientific question. This needs a political answer.
Euronews: You have repeatedly urged for increasing the budget of your agency. If you got all the funds in the world you wanted, what would you do with that money? Where would you invest, where would you improve things?
Url: We would need more money in preparedness because one of the tasks of EFSA is to look at emerging risks. What will be the future risks because of globalization, because of migration, because of climate change, because of new technologies, new plant breeding technologies, nanotechnology? What new hazards, new risks will come up and how can we prevent these risks from becoming damaging? And there we should invest, in this preparedness.