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#EFSA: Food safety – politics and science simply cannot mix

| May 19, 2017 | 0 Comments

Former US president Barrack Obama has shone a light on the combustive mix of technology, politics and climate and their impact on global security and food production. In a speech at the Seeds&Chips food conference in Milan, Obama gave a level headed presentation about the risks faced by the world if consumption habits and production patterns don’t evolve to cope with climate change, writes Martin Banks.

Trying his best to sound non-partisan, the former president pointed out that the waves of refugees coming to Europe could be linked to conflicts caused by food shortages brought on by climate change. Which is why, Obama argues “[We need] better seeds, better storage, crops that grow with less water, crops that grow in harsher climates,” especially since “I let the science determine my attitudes about food production and new technologies… It’s okay for us to be cautious about how we approach these new technologies but I don’t think we can be close-minded to it.”

President Obama’s speech comes at a crucial time, as the safety of the food chain has come under the spotlight again in Europe, raising profound questions about the interactions between science, politics and new technologies, interactions that can be so toxic that they actually yield results that are harmful to consumers.

Just look at the wrangling currently unfolding over formaldehyde, a naturally occurring compound commonly used to keep fowl (and humans) from contracting food poisoning. The European Commission is having a hard time re-approving the use of the substance as a feed additive due to strong opposition from activists and certain member states.

The deadlock over formaldehyde shouldn’t have happened: the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the compound does not cause cancer could be authorized as a feed additive as long as worker protection measures were taken.  In 2014, the agency concluded that “there is no health risk for consumers exposed to the substance through the food chain.”  Its conclusions are in line with the world’s leading scientific bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even so, the conclusions of the widely-respected EU agency have been called into question by, among others, the Health, and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a Brussels-based NGO, which managed to persuade Poland and Spain to take unilateral action and stop putting the substance in chicken feed.

The consequences were quick to follow. Weeks after Poland gave its order, a widespread salmonella outbreak – traced to a Polish farm – led to the deaths of two people, a 5-year-old in Croatia and another person in Hungary. Soon afterwards, EFSA reported that 218 confirmed cases and 252 probable cases of salmonella sourced from Polish farms were recorded between May 2016 and the end of February this year.

The formaldehyde debate shows the serious health repercussions that happen when science and politics clash. Another good example is that of the herbicide glyphosate. Originally marketed under the trade name Roundup, glyphosate accounts for about 25 per cent of the global herbicide market. In the EU, glyphosate-based herbicides are used for weed control for a wide range of crops including cereals, oilseed rape, maize, beans and sugar beet. Several European countries, including Germany, use glyphosate herbicides on almost half of their total crop area.

However, despite the fact that EFSA, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the EPA, a joint WHO/FAO committee and a swathe of other regulators concluded that glyphosate was not carcinogenic, a barrage of criticism seeking to discredit these institutions’ competence as scientific bodies followed. At the forefront of the attack on EFSA were the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and Italy’s Ramazzini Institute, which both continued to actively promote the alleged glyphosate-cancer link.

Several prominent Ramazzini staff (such as Director Fiorella Belpoggi and Associate Director Daniele Mandrioli), as well as a scientist with ties to an environmentalist NGO co-signed to a letter questioning EFSA’s glyphosate decision and urging regulators not to follow its recommendation. But the letter doesn’t explain why over 90,000 pages of evidence and 3,300 peer-reviewed studies support EFSA’s decision that glyphosate is not carcinogenic.

Much like in the case of formaldehyde, the European Commission has had a hard time extending glyphosate’s market approval, prompting EC President Jean Claude Juncker to revisit comitology rules in order to break the stalemate. As things stand now, the herbicide’s permit will lapse by the end of 2017, despite a loud choir of voices insisting that the substance is not just safe but crucial to ensuring European food safety.

Indeed, EFSA’s rulings on formaldehyde and glyphosate and, even more seriously, the salmonella-linked deaths in Croatia and Hungary show that the increased politicization of science in the EU is actually backfiring. Instead of following Obama’s advice and let science determine their attitudes about food production and new technologies policymakers are increasingly vulnerable to misinformation.

Certainly, the formaldehyde issue illustrates the potentially deadly consequences of poorly thought-out decision-making based on anything other than hard scientific evidence. With the EU now, once again, fiercely discussing food safety maybe it is time to admit that politics and science simply cannot mix.

 

 

 

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Category: A Frontpage, Agriculture, Biodiversity, EU product safety rules, Featured Article, Food, Food inspections, Genetic resources

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