The report was published today (24 July) following the EFRA inquiry into the circumstances surrounding the moratorium of DSM, which saw FSA chairman Lord Rooker, chief executive Tim Smith Agriculture Minister Jim Paice and the Minister for Public Health, Anne Milton quizzed by MPs. However the European Commission was unable, or unwilling, to appear at the inquiry, although it did submit written evidence, which Efra said was both disappointing and “worrying”.
Anne McIntosh MP, the EFRA committee chairman said: “Our producers have been badly let down by both the European Commission and the UK Government. The Commission’s actions are irrational and wrong. The government was caught unawares and has so far failed to protect UK producers.”
The report argued said that the moratorium had exposed “serious flaws” in the handling of the issue by the FSA, Defra and the Department of Health, despite the fact that the Commission had undoubtedly acted in a heavy-handed, disproportionate way, without any scientific evidence that DSM posed risks to public health. Although the committee said the FSA was right to take a science-based approach to food safety and agreed with assertions that DSM is completely safe, it criticised the FSA’s “lack of foresight” in anticipating the Commission’s actions and its interpretation of mechanically separated meat (MSM).
It was clear that it was always a possibility that the Commission would challenge the UK’s interpretation of the Food Hygiene Regulations, it said, and pointing out that draft guidance issued in January 2012 clearly showed that the Commissions working definition of MSM was different to that of the UK.
This failure, it continued, demonstrated a lack of political awareness which needed to be addressed.
It said that this FSA failure to anticipate the Commission's attitude had given the government very little time to explore other options, such as seeking support from other like-minded member states to challenge the Commission’s interpretation.
“There can be no doubt that the government was unprepared for the Commission’s decision”, the report said, adding that the surprise at the pace and severity with which the Commission requested the moratorium stemmed from “a fatal lack of understanding of the Commission’s thinking regarding the issue and a misguided assumption about how the Commission could be expected to act.”
“In view of the possible trade implications of a challenge to the UK’s interpretation of the Food Hygiene Regulations, Defra officials should have been closely involved in ongoing negotiations with the Commission from an early stage.”
Efra said that the FSA needed improve its “horizon-scanning capabilities” and determine what other steps it will take to ensure that the “unacceptable series of events” was not repeated. It called for better communication between the FSA, Defra and the Department of Health and also recommended that government set out ways to improve the FSA’s accountability to Parliament.
“Lessons must be learnt from this experience,” it concluded, saying that it has been producers who have paid the price for these mistakes.
EFRA called on government to renew its efforts to persuade the Commission to reverse its decision, and suggested that, should the EFSA support the UK's interpretation, the government should seriously consider taking legal action against the Commission if the moratorium is not immediately lifted.
The BMPA welcomed the report, describing it as “spot on” in its assessments and recommendations.
Stephen Rossides, director of the BMPA, said: “The report reaffirms that there are no food safety concerns around the use of desinewed meat, which makes the European Commission’s disproportionate and punitive threats and actions against the UK all the more perplexing.
He called on government to take a greater role in negotiations with the Commission. He said: “As the report identifies, the FSA makes much of its view that its role is not to promote or protect the industry, yet it is FSA officials, not ministers, that have been negotiating with the European Commission on this important issue which has a huge impact on the meat industry. The meat industry needs a champion in government. Like the Committee, we would welcome closer Defra involvement on the matter.
“It is industry that is bearing the costs of this very sorry episode, with very severe consequences for some individual businesses.”
He agreed with the report's assessment that it was “totally unacceptable” that wrongly labelled or unlawful products could be imported into the UK to replace UK-produced DSM, and said that government must seek support from other EU member states for the UK position, and press the Commission to lift the moratorium.
The British Poultry Council (BPC) also welcomed the report. Chairman John Reed said: “This situation shows that poultry production is vulnerable to knee-jerk reactions made by the European Commission, and we need a strong UK Government presence to defend British businesses from this sort of ill-timed decision. I hope this report serves to highlight to Government the pressing need to defend British companies and the livelihoods that depend on them.”
He concluded: “It’s good that the EFRA Select Committee has shone a light on this issue. Now we have to ensure that all the other European countries are being treated the same way as the UK, otherwise British companies are going to lose out once again.”
He said that the Commission’s “misguided” decision threatened to cost British poultry companies up to £100m
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