Health

EU Commission wants new powers to vet product safety

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The European Commission on Wednesday proposed giving itself new powers to request scientific studies on the safety of products in an effort to quell public concerns that industry has too much influence over the process.

Should the plan be signed off by national capitals as well as the European Parliament, it would hand Brussels far-reaching capabilities to re-evaluate scientific studies submitted by companies in order to approve the likes of food additives, pesticide products and genetically modified food.

The Commissions proposal comes after lawmakers and campaigners complained vociferously last year that studies used to assess the carcinogenicity of the weedkiller glyphosate were kept secret. They accused Monsanto — the worlds biggest manufacturer of the substance — of ghostwriting some of the research, a claim that the U.S. concern has strongly denied.

“It goes without saying that the responsibility to demonstrate that a product is safe continues to lie with the industry,” European Commission Vice President Frans Timmermans told reporters as he unveiled the legislation in Brussels. “But in controversial cases EFSA [the European Food Safety Authority] will now also be able to commission its own studies financed from the EU budget.”

The new rules, if adopted by EU member countries, will affect all companies — including big players such as Germanys Bayer and the Swiss-based conglomerate Syngenta — looking to approve a wide range of products, including genetically modified food, food and feed additives, food enzymes and pesticides. As part of the new regime, the Commission would order the European Food Safety Authority to commission its own scientific studies should “exceptional circumstances” arise.

The new proposal, which emerged as part of a revision to the EUs General Food Law, did not specify what would count as an exceptional circumstance.

It would also oblige companies to post data from the studies they commission on EFSAs website so that scientists can assess the research independently.

But the Commissions move did not go far enough for some campaigners, who argued companies should play no role whatsoever in commissioning the studies that go into proving the safety of their products.

“The publication of test results supporting applications for pesticide approvals is the bare minimum. But the Commission is just papering over the cracks,” said Mark Breddy, a spokesperson for Greenpeace in Brussels. “Pesticide producers should not be allowed to control the testing of their own products. As a rule, this should be the job of the EU.”

International standards

The Commissions plan would give Brussels new powers to ensure that laboratories that conduct scientific studies comply with international standards. In recent years, public skepticism surrounding the independence of the science behind chemical substances — particularly pesticides and genetically modified food — has put pressure on EU countries not to approve such products for the marketplace even if the science concludes they are safe.

That has left the Commission in a tricky position when trying to decide whether to approve genetically modified crops for cultivation and risk taking the flak from the public. In November, the EU only just managed to gain enough support to renew the license of glyphosate, the worlds most common herbicide, thanks to a dramatic U-turn from Berlin, whose environment minister at the time, Barbara Hendricks, angrily asserted that she had been double-crossed by the conservative then-Agriculture Minister Christian Schmidt.

Timmermans defended the Commissions decision to keep industry involved in carrying out research to determine the safety of their products.

“Many of these studies are completely uncontroversial. If you can leave the financial burden on the ones who are going to profit from it and not put it on the shoulders of the taxpayers then that is good,” he said. “But if there is a controversy … then EFSA can intervene.”

The Commissions move follows an announcement last month from dozens of agrichemical companies pledging to release undisclosed documents containing safety data on their pesticides. Critics of the move, however, said they were skeptical about the transparency pledge because companies would still be able to hold back key data, citing corporate secrecy.

That option is also possible under the new Commission proposal, although companies will “have to provide verifiable justification for their possible confidentiality claims,” the EU executive said in a memo.

“I hope that the global commitment to further transparency from our industry, and the principles enshrined in this new proposal, will be met with a similar commitment by those on the other side of the debate who produce studies arguing against the need for, or approval of, pesticides,” said Graeme Taylor, director of public affairs at the European Crop Protection Association, an EU pesticide lobby.

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