Upcoming Novel Foods Policy 

The EU wants to revise legislation on novel foods in order to improve food safety along the whole supply chain, a concept known as “from farm to fork”. The proposal for a Regulation also aims to take into consideration new novel food technologies that have been developed since Regulation (EC) No 258/97 came into force.

Novel foods are foods produced with new technologies or new breeding techniques, such as cloning. The category also includes traditional foods from third countries not previously introduced on the EU’s internal market, such as baobab dried fruit pulp or Allanblackia seed oil. Foods falling into these categories are currently regulated under Regulation 258/97. A stakeholder consultation carried out in 2002 however found this Regulation in need of revision; stakeholders found it cumbersome, inefficient and time-consuming. Questions were also raised over how new novel food technologies should be defined.

Novel food authorisation

In order to improve clarity and increase efficiency, the proposal for a Regulation aims to establish a centralised authorisation procedure for the placing of novel foods on the internal market. This, says the European Commission, would be much more effective. It would also lead to substantial cost savings on the national level. Currently, Member States carry out individual assessments and send them to their peers for comments. Under the new proposal, the Commission would receive an application and send it to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) for a scientific assessment. If EFSA’s opinion favourably reviews the safety of the novel product, the Commission would then present the proposal to the Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health, which would then adopt the application through the "comitology" procedure. The proposed Regulation would also establish three different authorisation procedures: a normal procedure concerning general authorisations; a procedure concerning specific applicants who benefit from intellectual property rights; and a facilitated notification procedure for foods from third countries. The last procedure would require proof of extensive and long-term use of the product in the third country.

The original 1997 Regulation also covers genetically modified organisms (GMOs). As these have since been dealt with in a separate Regulation, the new proposal would amend accordingly Regulation 258/97 to reflect this reality. The proposal would also bring the Regulation up to date with the fact that food additives, food enzymes and food flavourings are also excluded from the scope of the Regulation and dealt with in individual Regulations.  

Cloning

Products from cloned animals intended for human consumption are not allowed in the EU. However, embryos and semen from clones are on the global market for animal germ products and the European Commission expects meat and milk from cloned animals to be available on the global market in 2010. In February 2007, the Commission asked EFSA to issue a scientific opinion on the implications of cloning on food safety, animal welfare and the environment. In parallel, it asked the European Group on Ethics in Science and New Technologies (EGE) to give advice on the issue. EFSA argued that food from cloned animals was unlikely to be different from that of conventionally-bred animals, while EGE stated that it didn’t “see convincing arguments to justify the production of food from clones and their offspring”. Cloning is one of the most controversial issues concerning this proposal, and there is disagreement within the institutions. While the European Parliament wants to remove cloning from the proposal altogether and introduce a total ban on cloning, the Council prefers to leave the door open on the question of Regulating cloning animals for food.

Nanotechnology

Nanotechnology is another bone of contention. There is no current EU legislation on nanotechnology. The European Commission has published an Action Plan to promote the safe development of nanotechnologies and a Code of conduct for responsible research in nanotechnologies in February 2008. EFSA published an opinion on 5 March 2009 on risks arising from nanotechnologies in food and feed. The opinion concludes that a case-by-case approach is necessary and that current lack of data and testing methodologies would result to a high degree of uncertainty. A parallel study concerning nanotechnologies in the non-food area is being conducted. MEP’s have long supported the “precautionary principle” for nanotechnologies and push for a specific “nano”-legislation. As regards novel foods, MEPs want a clear definition for nanotechnology and nanomaterials. However, a clear definition may be very difficult to achieve, because nanotechnologies relate to so many different areas.

Ethical and environmental aspects

Parliament wishes to bring safety and health more in the spotlight. Accordingly, the House calls for the “precautionary principle” to be fully enforced when placing new products on the market. Furthermore, MEPs wish that environmental and ethical aspects be further taken into account. They claim Member States should be able to refuse a product on their market on ethical grounds and propose that EGE and the European Environment Agency be part of the assessment procedure.

Conclusion

The overall aim of the proposal for the review of EU legislation on novel foods is to facilitate the access of new and innovative foods on the internal market, while ensuring a high level of food safety and consumer protection. There are concerns however that a simplified process could in essence be too simple, and that controversial products could start appearing on consumer tables without proper and thorough assessment. The proposed centralised authorisation system is currently being applied to GMOs, but the procedure has proved to be anything but fast-track - several Member States remain reluctant to go along with EFSA’s favourable opinions on GMOs, and Council routinely votes against lifting Member State bans, contrary to EFSA’s recommendations.