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Andriukaitis defends a science-based approach to food safety regulation

Outgoing Commissioner flags up a series of imminent reports that he has left in the hands of his successor Stella Kyriakides.

This article is powered by EU Food Law

Vytenis Andriukaitis, the EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner since November 2014 mounted a robust defence of strict science-based policy-making in an exclusive interview with IEG Policy in which the Lithuanian politician discussed genetically modified organisms, health claims and nutritional labelling. Sara Lewis interviewed Vytenis Andriukaitis in the dying days of his tenure as EU Health and Food Safety Commissioner

SL: Should there be a single, harmonised front-of-pack nutrition label?  If so, should it be colour coded and should it be the Nutri-Score? What, if any, other labelling do you think is needed at EU level, for example, suitable for vegans, eco-labelling, climate friendly?

VA: Let’s start with this first part of your question – should there be a single, harmonised front-of-pack nutrition label.  From my point of view your question is very timely, and of course a very complex one and it is not so easy to answer. 

An industrially produced food, which is more standardised, you can find in Lisbon and in Vilnius. You find it everywhere because it’s industrially produced, and it is placed upon the single market. So, in this case, you can say yes, maybe it is logical to have something single, because it calculates a lot of issues. 

All information could be more harmonised otherwise we segregate and destroy the single market and create a lot of obstacles and allow member states to renationalise the single market if they are putting their own initiatives in place. 

In one case we have mandatory requirements for prepacked products.  If it is mandatory, it should be standardised in the whole EU. But when we’re speaking about front-of-pack information and then about nutritional profiles, we should keep in mind that we have many, many people, many consumers with different approaches to this issue: some are vegans, some are vegetarians, some don’t care, some are very keen not to use products which are full of sugar. 

And then the situation is you see a lot of different labels now: Green Keyhole, Nutri-Score, Traffic Lights and so on. You find different labels because different member states are doing their own thing because it’s on a voluntary basis. 

Can you imagine how difficult it is for the producer to fulfil the different requirements and then to put in the effort, money and investments and so on to really, you know, mark their goods with the front-of-pack requirements, which are in the UK one issue, in France another, in Lithuania third, in Sweden fourth?  We should understand the situation. 

Of course, we have decided to assess the situation and to ask our assessors to present to us a report on the general view of today’s existing, voluntary-based front-of-pack labels.  The report is in the final stage.  I have done my job and the report is ready but of course now we are in a strange position. On the one hand we have the report, on the other there’s a new Commission because we decided to pass the ball onto the new Commission.  So it’s up to the new Commission then to present this report and to start debates about which is the best way forward.

Speaking about labelling, maybe we can agree that it should be more or less standardised; or more or less, you know, in some blocs for example, looking at certain issues; or, we could allow member states to carry through with their own decisions, as we see happening today.  Your question was about a “single” label, which is really very important and very provocative, because it provokes debate.  I am very happy to pass that on to your readers.

 

"You know if you look at Nutri-Score and French activities, they really tried to ask scientists and to follow a scientific approach, and also to understand consumer behaviour and to see what would be good for consumers. But if you ask the UK about traffic lights, they also concluded their label after discussing with scientists, but the goals were a little bit different. From my point of view, now is as good a time as any to discuss possibilities.  Each way is possible" - Vytenis Andriukaitis

 

Of course, it is better to have something more common, as always, but if you look at the Euro, only 19 countries decided to join the Eurozone, but we now don’t have the option to have one single currency in all member states, and we know that it is our strength to find solutions. Does it matter that we do not have the single currency?

And what about the issue of front-of-pack profiles?  First of all, we need to understand that we need to have some science-based decisions.  Science-based decisions in this field are very complex. 

You know if you look at Nutri-Score and French activities, they really tried to ask scientists and to follow a scientific approach, and also to understand consumer behaviour and to see what would be good for consumers. 

But if you ask the UK about traffic lights, they also concluded their label after discussing with scientists, but the goals were a little bit different. From my point of view, now is as good a time as any to discuss possibilities.  Each way is possible. 

On the issue of mandatory labelling for pre-packed food, from my point of view, we have enough mandatory requirements – energy, salt, sugar, fats, and it’s okay, especially industrially-produced food, but when your question is about vegans, ecolabelling, climate friendly, it requires a lot of debate, a lot of issues and of course, to find solutions which should be acceptable to all, because it’s not only up to the European Commission, it’s also up to member states to decide.

At standing committee level, you need to have QMV (qualified majority vote) and then up to the European Parliament. So I think it’s not so easy to answer your question about a single, harmonised front-of-pack nutritional label. 

Theoretically it would be good because it can help us to maintain one single market without fragmentation and help our producers not to invest more because if you have different requirements you need to put in investments and then the price goes up and consumers are paying.  Because finally you need to understand this, consumers also need to have access to good, healthy food at socially acceptable prices. This also has to be taken into consideration.

Pricing is a very complex issue. From the beginning, because it was our obligation to present a common picture, we asked for an assessment, to finalise the report.

The report is done, and it is now up to the next Commission to debate.  From my point of view, if we would be ready to achieve something common, it would be good, speaking about front-of-pack labelling.

Climate-friendly labelling is a more complicated issue because how can you calculate transportation, heating and the use of soil and fertilisers. It’s very complex, sometimes very sophisticated. But it should be on the table and time should be taken to discuss these issues, for sure. But I’m not sure of the answers.

SL: Do you think that your successor should ensure that the Commission finally produces nutrient profiles to back up the nutrition and health claims regulation? And botanical health claims?

VA: Speaking about health claims, the nutrition and health claims regulation, we did our job also, we started this assessment and now a staff working document is being prepared and is planned to be adopted at the end of this year.

But please keep in mind that this covers more than 7,000 different claims and of course only after such an evaluation can the Commission consider having a fully informed orientation on this subject matter.  From my point of view, it’s up to the new Commission to have the final say what they can do, because the nutritional claims are also a very complex issue.

SL: Even though the World Health Organisation supports nutritional profiles?

VA: Yes, you know I am big fan of nutritional profiles, but as I told you, you need to keep in mind that nutritional profiles should be closely developed with nutritional policies, with healthy foods, and with agricultural policies and we need to understand that we have different cultures.

I am big fan of promoting the Mediterranean diet, but of course, I can’t deny some Northern countries’ dietary proposals.  They have a lot of attention on the so-called Green Keyhole, some promoting very much grains to use in foods, more vegetables and so on. 

From my point of view, it would be good to be able to inform consumers about different options and different nutritional values and different nutritional profiles and to help them to achieve science-based information and in this case it would show information systems and the proposals are ok. But on the other hand, what you can propose in the Mediterranean area may not suitable in the northern part of the European Union and we need to also keep in mind cultural traditions, they should be also included. 

Any differences relate to heritage, cuisine, a lot of issues, but of course, generally I would be more than happy that member states should develop their own nutritional policies, because they know better than the Commission the specificities in every country. 

And regarding obesity or non-communicable diseases, the picture differs from country to country and if you follow alcohol consumption for example, you can also see different pictures.  If you follow atherosclerosis and high blood pressure or obesity once again you see differences. It means that you need to go into a deep way and to ask member states whether they are capable to present their own nutritional policies and then recommendations and then profiles and then debate with consumers about how they can change behaviour, because they are not speaking only about food, they are also speaking about people’s health.  Because food is the main component to health, to people’s health at a good level.

SL: Would that not lead to renationalisation of food policies or nutrition policies?

VA: No, I think not. Today you see, the Mediterranean diet, it’s not about renationalisation, it’s about the possibilities to promote such a scheme of nutrition.  When you see the Green Keyhole and such, it’s not about renationalisation and of course when we are going into national gastronomic traditions, you see a lot of issues, which are part of heritage and it is about nutritional profile also.

It means that we need to keep in mind that we are all different, and we need to promote our cultural heritage and differences, but of course assessing what is healthy in those profiles and what is dangerous.  For example, if you see a picture and people are drinking a lot of beer and eating this bread with salt and then you see pictures about hypertension – high blood pressure – obesity, cancer, stroke for me it’s obvious that we need to advise some countries ‘please look how you can change it as this is a big problem’.

But you need to do it in a very, very delicate manner, not to confront but encourage, educate, improve and propose and, of course, advise. Because sometimes the scientific messages sound very radical. For example if you say to people ‘please don’t eat red meat because it can provoke colorectal cancer’, statistically it is a very population analysis, it means ‘please don’t eat red meat five times per day and don’t eat red meat every day.  Please use a variety of options’.

We need to say how can we change nutrient profiles because we all go through changes: once is when you are a child to five years, another is when you are from five to 14 years, a third from 14 to 28 and I’m 68, sorry I can only take food two times a day or one time, because it’s not necessary. 

We need to understand that nutrient profiles are very dynamic, they should be targeted to NCDs to the whole picture and it’s a very complicated issue. Simplification is very, very dangerous.  But it’s not about renationalisation, it’s about the real possibility to look at the countries’ health profiles for NCDs and look how can we address it and what we can address. 

Of course, one thing is industrially-produced food, which is placed on the whole market and we need to see how can we can facilitate and improve food information and how can it be helped to avoid the main risk factors – sugar, transfats, salt, acrylamide because industry can include it into their technologies.  But if you are speaking about restaurants, kitchens, consumers, home traditions, it’s a very, very complex issue and a very different one.

SL: So you wouldn’t favour a ban on using a health claim that’s approved under the regulation on a food high in sugar or salt?

VA: Speaking about health claims, the problem of botanical health claims is a good example, because if you are putting on a packet of simple herbal tea that ‘it can help you avoid diseases’ then, sorry, you can have clinical trials.  Because if you are using the word ‘health’ you need to have evidence-based trials.  This is a big challenge.  Otherwise it’s misleading information for consumers and how many issues you see on the front-of-pack ‘energy, please use it’, ‘vitamins’ and so on. It’s not evidence-based, you need to understand that health claims should be based on strict scientific requirements.  It should be regulated, and you know you need to have science in your answer, no doubt and not mislead and not play marketing games with the word ‘health’.

SL: And 30 years or more traditional use?

VA: Of course, it’s up to member states to regulate first of all speaking about traditional use of herbs as medicines, and they do not require clinical trials because there has been hundreds and hundreds of years of use, it would be very very difficult to deny it. But speaking about the possibilities to use botanicals in food and then to use health claims, here it is a sensitive issue, you need to have, you know, the evidence and if you don’t have evidence, why are you using a claim ‘healthy’?

It’s a misleading situation.  If you are using a herbal treatment and are buying it in pharmacies, that is one issue because you know that it is based on long traditional treatment and some extracts of herbs or should I say, 80% of botanicals are achieved because they were extractions from herbs and it’s okay but if you are going into the food area and claiming you know that using botanicals in food and then you are claiming that this is healthier, okay, then it is a misleading situation. 

You need to have then an assessment in your hands and at the moment a staff working document on botanicals is being prepared and it is planned to be adopted by the end of this year.  It’s up to the next Commission of course also to discuss how can they decide fully informed approach on the future of botanicals used in food because botanicals in food is a very complex issue.

SL: You’ve always advocated a science-based policy, and always said that EFSA has said that GMOs are safe, but it’s like as if it’s falling on deaf ears.  What would you say can be done to persuade people to accept GMOs, or do you have to accept a cultural element and ban them even though scientifically they might have been proven to be safe?

VA: You raised a very old question on the conflict between science and public opinion.

SL: But it’s not solved …

VA: It’s not solved until now.  Because if you look at understandings the planet is not flat, the Earth is not flat, but the Earth it’s like a ball. Those who argued that it was flat because they couldn’t see it in their evidence, but they were confronted with public opinion.  You remember the Galileo tragedy? Galileo discovered that the planet was going around the sun, but public opinion was in favour that he was a heretic. 

Today you see a lot of conflicts and it’s more or less the same situation. Some people don’t accept science as a reality. Then you can see different consequences. Speaking of GM, you know that we have EFSA, and a science-based approach is the only one which can help us fundamentally to have a food safety system.

I ask your readers: are you ready to accept that our food safety should be based on public opinion or our food safety system should be based on evidence?  Please tell me.  If you agree that we can only follow public opinion, then I can tell you that will be the final stage of our food safety system because we can’t build our food safety system based on public opinion, for sure. 

But if you look at public opinion and the influence of public opinion, you see how many times public opinion changes. One thing is bad but after a few years ‘oh, no, no it’s all good’, ‘please drink coffee because it is okay’ then ‘oh no don’t drink coffee because it will kill you’ and if you will assess how many times we will have different public opinions about different products you can always ask yourself what is the phenomena of public opinion, but my answer is the same, nutrient profiles should be based on science. 

Risk factor analysis should be based on science.  Food safety assessment should be based on science.  But of course, another problem now is trust in science. That is a problem and some are playing games with this trust in science because now science is more and more specialised, more and more sophisticated and more and more requires very complex measures to understand it. 

And if people don’t understand it, do not see direct links, they do not trust science, especially those that say that science is in the hands of industry and to them the issue is also the main argument ‘look because they are in the hands of the industry and because industry can pay money we are not ready to trust science.’

And then you see very difficult problems.  There is pressure to speak about GM and speak about glyphosate. We must raise questions about restoring trust in science and we proposed transparency issues in our general food law, because otherwise I see the future big crisis of our food safety system. 

"I know how many people died because of tobacco and it is clear, it’s evidence but you have not one case of people who died because they are using GM soy milk! Not one" - Vytenis Andriukaitis

If we destroy science-based assessments, it will be disastrous and then there will be no possibility to have one single market.  Can you imagine? It’s absolutely clear and when you speak about the opposition of GM of course the GM issue is not about only food, it’s about understanding of biotechnologies, it’s about biodiversity, it’s about use of pesticides, it’s about multinational corporations, it’s many, many political arguments but not science-based arguments.

If I ask you how many people died because they use GM food, please tell me, do you know how many people died?  Can you show me two examples? I know how many people died because of tobacco and it is clear, it’s evidence but you have not one case of people who died because they are using GM soy milk! Not one. My question is for you, for all your readers: Please tell me why you are sensitive about GM?  If you have evidence please send it to me, I will be more than happy to have your public opinion evidence.

Of course, when you are mixing all the issues, climate change, monoculture, you know biotechnologies, diversification these are different phenomena, we need to discuss those issues and how can we address them. 

But please don’t mix all the issues into one and if we are speaking about food safety we should be based on scientific assessment.  Don’t argue about it looking at the prevalence of multinational corporations in the market.  Sorry that’s two different issues: if you are mixing, you have a political cocktail, which can destroy your trust in scientific assessment. 

From a scientific point of view, I know that I will follow EFSA and EFSA is clear, not only EFSA, we have data around the globe and science is clear that they have no facts, scientific evidence to ban GM food and GM feed, but if you are mixing different issues like some political schools or some NGOs it’s a different issue.  I am not ready to follow NGOs’ opinions because it’s not my competence. 

I know NGOs’ opinions but sorry, I am obliged to sign conclusions and if the conclusions are from EFSA that it is not carcinogenic, not mutagenic, not tetragenic okay, but if you see a biodiversity issue, please it is the Commissioner responsible for biodiversity Commissioner Karmenu Vella and we are in debate about how can we improve our instruments and protect biodiversity.  But protecting biodiversity don’t throw out GM technologies because GM technologies can help us protect biodiversity. 

You can see today brilliant achievements with new breeding techniques, which can help us to guarantee a high level of safe food production, which do not use pesticides, which do not require fertilisers, some of those crops are resistant to drought and they can help us re-cultivate desert.

SL: What do you think have been your greatest achievements of your time in office and what have been things you regret, and you would have done differently?

VA: I will be very short. I think that we have achieved a lot in food.  First of all, labelling of alcohol is a big achievement.  It was started 40 years ago - 40 years ago - and now we achieve results in beer, in spirits, wine industry they ask to have a legislative initiative, okay, but we achieved this after difficult debates, the labelling of calories and labelling of ingredients.  In beer, calories and ingredients on labels; in spirits, calories on labels, ingredients online, okay; and, wine, the proposal is in the pipeline of legislation.

We achieved a remedy for transfats in food.  I am very happy with that. I am a cardiac surgeon, a cardiologist so I know what it means, and I will be more than happy to tell my colleagues ‘yes, we did it!’ We achieved a regulation to reduce levels of acrylamide, because it’s a real carcinogen in very popular food products – potato fries, chips and so on.  Many children and people are using it and we succeeded.

Of course, we succeeded in making changes to general food law. I am proud because we made a big step forward. Now transparency in general food law can help us to preserve our food safety system and can help us in the debates about the assessment of glyphosate and GM and so on.  Of course, I proposed to change the system at standing committee level – that member states should vote publicly.  Don’t hide behind the Commission. Of course, this proposal now is in the pipeline, but I see differences, some decided to reject it. Okay it’s up to you, but I am proud.

What I regret, I regret that I think that the EU has not done more in the single market, providing guidelines on how can we avoid the main risk factors in food. 

Public health instruments should be presented because, on the one hand we have local markets and it’s up to member states, but we also have the single market where you can see the same products in Lisbon and in Helsinki and it means that the EU should do more using public health science-based instruments, regulating the single market, reducing a lot of industrially produced risk factors in our food and currently that our food is more friendly to our health.  Yes, I regret that I did not achieve enough in this.  I tried to do my best but it would be good to have broad guidelines, public health guidelines, in area of food which is produced industrially and which is sold in all 28 member states, because we need to have pan-European guidelines and more harmonised approach to avoid the main five seven risk factors.

SL: What would be your message for Stella Kyriakides? What should she do?

VA: I am sure that Stella Kyriakides knows very well on what she needs and wants to focus.  I am ready to pass to her all my achievements.  We have just finalised a lot of reports.  I have passed those reports into the hands of Stella Kyriakides, it is up to her to see which way is more suitable.  I wouldn’t want her to read my messages from the press, it would be unethical.  I am very sensitive to ethical issues and I trust Stella Kyriakides very much and do know that she will be excellent, and she will do her own initiatives, own achievements, because every single Commissioner thinks about their own input to strengthen the European Union.

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