Food Safety: EC proposals that may prove hard to swallow - Food safety in Europe has been high on the political agenda prompting new European Commission measures aimed at instilling greater consumer confidence

European Commissioner Emma Bonino’s pronouncement in PR Week last week that the best way to protect the European Union’s consumers against food safety threats is to increase information rather than legislation must have warmed the heart of even the hardest Eurosceptic. On this issue at least, critics of the European Commission will find it hard to claim that Brussels is seeking to impose its directives on member states.

European Commissioner Emma Bonino’s pronouncement in PR Week

last week that the best way to protect the European Union’s

consumers against food safety threats is to increase information

rather than legislation must have warmed the heart of even the

hardest Eurosceptic. On this issue at least, critics of the

European Commission will find it hard to claim that Brussels is

seeking to impose its directives on member states.



Communication rather that new laws, argues Bonino, is the key to

protecting the public. ’That has always been my line with

consumer policy,’ she says.



’I don’t think firstly it’s enough to make legislation. Secondly

you will never protect 300 million people. Certainly pieces of

legislation are useful, but the most important thing is to have

aware citizens who can have the tools to protect themselves.



’Complete information is the basic tool. Labelling is the basic

fact.



I absolutely agree that we can have less legislation, provided we

have a more important information policy.’



Responding to criticism and a threatened censure motion by the

European Parliament in February over its handling of the BSE

scare, the commission has already put in motion a series of

measures designed as much to instil confidence in consumers as to

pacify baying MEPs. Bonino, whose portfolios include fisheries

and humanitarian aid as well as consumer policy, has been given

responsibility for seven scientific, veterinary and food

committees previously under the direction of agriculture

commissioner Franz Fischler.



Bonino will also take charge of a new veterinary inspection

office based in Ireland which might eventually evolve into an

independent food safety agency along the lines of the US Food and

Drugs Administration. The message is clear: separate the

interests of the public from those of the food and agriculture

industries.



But while these initial measures look promising, it remains

unclear how the commission intends practically to communicate

complex scientific information and advice on food safety to the

public.



Responsibility for any PR initiative is likely to fall to the

unit for information and consumer representation within the

commission’s consumer wing Directorate-General XXIV. Headed by

Jens Nymand Christensen, a team of five officials - possibly

swelled by new recruits - will be responsible for disseminating

information on food health protection when the changes adopted by

the commission come into force on 1 April.



One official thinks that in the short term communications will

probably be limited to making available the recommendations of

the seven committees under Bonino’s control to the press,

consumer groups and scientific bodies.



’It’s very early days and there is nothing official,’ he

explains. ’What is sure is that DG XXIV is in charge of

information for the scientific committees and that there will be

special attention for the diffusion of the advice of the

committees. It will be available to the public by electronic

means like the Internet but I don’t know when.’



He agrees that in the longer term, a European Union-wide PR

programme could also be used to inform the public about broader

health issues and to offer practical information on the safe

preparation of food. The commission, he points out, has already

embarked on a campaign to promote the consumption of fish and

seafood, while DG VI has managed a programme to show the

nutritional benefits of olive oil for several years.



But explaining the medically-acknowledged merits of fish and

olive oil is one thing. Trying to get across complex scientific

information on the emotionally and politically charged issue of

food safety is quite another, as Colin Doeg, a PR consultant and

author of Crisis Management in the Food and Drinks Industry

points out.



’It’s incredibly difficult to communicate to the public now that

we are living in a shorter sound bite era where you have to

explain something in 25 words or ten seconds and at the same time

convince people that you have the matter in hand,’ he says.



’Information must be handled very carefully. For example, the

results of animal tests and trials might produce results that

show that someone somewhere under certain conditions may be prone

to a health risk. That can provide the opportunity to create a

panic. No matter how safe or wholesome a product, you will always

get someone who has a bad reaction to it and no spokesman can

ever give a black and white answer. That’s the enormous dilemma

facing someone involved in food.’



Doeg thinks that the commission could also face a hostile

reaction if it took it upon itself to explain to European

consumers how to prepare food or what to eat. Such messages

would, for example, be unlikely to go down well with the UK

government which is already struggling with the consequences of

the BSE crisis, the E.coli food poisoning outbreak and recent

revelations about the standards of hygiene in abattoirs.



’It’s something that would have to be handled very delicately

because people might think they were being told how to boil an

egg or cook toast,’ says Doeg. ’I also think there’s a lot of

resentment already against EC edicts and you find standards that

are acceptable in one country but not in another.’



In the end, Bonino may find communication almost as problematic

as legislation.



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