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European Union to create food safety watchdog


January 12, 2000
Web posted at: 3:46 p.m. EST (2046 GMT)

BRUSSELS (CNN) - The European Commission announced ambitious plans for an EU-wide food safety program to include a new watchdog agency and more than 80 possible changes to food safety laws. The plans were announced Wednesday and described as a move to overcome public fears about mad cow disease, sewage sludge in animal feed, and other food safety scares.

"The consumers' trust has been eroded and the EU must restore public confidence in its food science and controls," European Consumer Safety Commissioner David Byrne told a news conference.

"The proposals are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety," he added.

The new EU food safety authority would be up and running in 2002, and would be designed to anticipate and advise on food scares.

The commission wants to establish a body with a reputation for independence and scientific excellence that will work alongside national food agencies, Byrne said.

The authority would also help prevent disputes such as the furor over France's rejection of British beef in spite of advice from EU scientists that the meat is safe, he said.

A watchdog with no teeth?

Some critics were quick to dismiss the new food safety authority, because the group is designed to advise, but will not be able to regulate food production and handling. Legal expert Hilary Ross of Paisner & Co, told CNN, "I think this agency is going to be underwhelming. It's going to be a watchdog with absolutely no teeth."

"The problem now is that this proposal for a food authority is inquiring but not empowering. It is long on wish lists but short on effectiveness," said Phillip Whitehead, the British Labor Party's spokesman on Consumer Affairs in the European Parliament.

Some critics had hoped to see a strong regulatory agency, similar to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Byrne said combining independent science with law-making in an FDA-type committee would erode democratic accountability.

"Science is for scientists and policy-makers are for the law," he said.

The environmental group Friends of the Earth tentatively applauded the news of a new food safety agency. "It's welcome that there's a recognition in the E.U. that food safety is a major political and economic issue that has to be sorted out.... In principal we're behind it," said spokesperson Pete Riley.

Many details of the proposed authority remained to be worked Out including which country would host the agency.

Correspondent Charles Hodson and Reuters contributed to this report.

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