Comitology fails science

Comitology fails science


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There can’t be many people left working in Brussels who still believe that EU regulations are formulated by weighing up the scientific evidence to reach a rational, evidence-based decision. Politics and horse-trading play a part everywhere, and shaky science is often used to support the politicians’ favoured result. The scale of the disregard for science and due process displayed by the European Commission and member states in the run up to last month’s denial of authorisation of the use of formaldehyde in animal feed, however, should be enough to shock even the most hardened cynic in the Brussels Bubble.

As a result of a technical reclassification in 2014, formaldehyde was required to receive a new authorisation as a feed additive.

Due to the long history of its safe use in Europe, coupled with the complete lack of new evidence to count against its use, most interested parties expected formaldehyde to receive a speedy reauthorisation as a matter of process. Indeed, armed with a positive opinion from the European Food Safety Authority, the Commission initially proposed a ten-year renewal of the substance. A transition period was implemented to allow its use until 2015, in anticipation of a positive outcome.

However, in a dynamic that has become all too familiar to EU advocates from the glyphosate debacle, a number of member states vacillated, preventing reauthorisation and stalling the proposal in the Standing Committee on Plants, Animals, Food and Feed (ScoPAFF). In the face of this opposition, as in the case of glyphosate, the Commission weakened its proposal, first to five years and then to three, in the hopes of pushing the reauthorisation through. The transition period expired, leaving formaldehyde in a legal limbo in Europe.

While poultry producers waited, the Commission battled to gain the necessary qualified majority, coming tantalisingly close less than 12 months ago, when there were 21 countries constituting a 63% qualified majority in favour of the reauthorisation, just 2% away from the total needed.

The use of formaldehyde in animal feed continued to have the full support of the scientific community, and of the Commission’s own scientific bodies. In 2016, the Commission’s own committee on occupational exposure limits (SCOEL) determined safe exposure limits of formaldehyde for workers. The way forward for the Commission was to continue to back its own science, and use its powers to reauthorise formaldehyde in the absence of agreement from the member states.

Clearly the Commission did not follow this course. Instead, they backed down, going overnight from supporting a reauthorisation to proposing a complete denial of authorisation on the file. Was this about-face motivated by some new piece of scientific evidence? Surely the Commission must have produced some new science to justify its position and preserve its own credibility if nothing else.

Wrong – the Commission produced not one shred of new evidence to support its proposal for denial. Instead, it referenced vague concerns about worker safety, and supposed viable alternatives (a fact disputed by an overwhelming majority of stakeholders during a public consultation). The problem with this is that the Commission’s own body for determining safety for workers using chemicals (SCOEL), found that formaldehyde poses no risk to the health of workers below a certain level, a level which is well above what agricultural workers are exposed to. On the basis of SCOEL’s determination, the Commission itself publically defends the use of formaldehyde in a whole range of industries, including medicine and science.

Most damningly of all, the Commission did not point to any new evidence. Its only claim was that the advantages gained by using formaldehyde as a feed additive are – at the moment – outweighed by the potential health risks for those who handle the substance, prompting the response that if the removal of Salmonella in animal feed was not sufficiently beneficial, what should happen to uses of formaldehyde in nail hardeners, building or furniture?

If this wasn’t bad enough, the most farcical element of this sorry saga is yet to be told. In the interests of the Commission’s vaunted ‘Better Regulation’ principles, a public consultation on the proposal was opened in November to incorporate feedback into the final decision-making on the file. In total, 98 submissions were made to the consultation, one of the highest response rates ever, the vast majority coming from scientists and farmers opposed to the denial and supporting reauthorisation. This public consultation closed the night before the vote, with the last submission coming in less than 12 hours before member states voted for the denial. There is simply no way that the results of the consultation could have been properly reviewed and digested in this timeframe. What is the point of having a public consultation if the Commission ignores it entirely? The brazenness of the Commission’s disregard for its own processes and principles is mindboggling.

So too is the huge shift among member states, despite there being absolutely no new evidence of potential harm.  Of the 21 countries that supported reauthorisation a year ago, only one opposed the denial of authorisation tabled in December, namely Finland, a country that takes a zero-tolerance approach to Salmonella, and staunchly believes that science rather than political expediency should guide public policy. The other 20 all changed position, leading to a whopping 26 countries voting to deny authorisation.

This complete reversal in the positions of these member states is rather astounding, and is worth considering for a moment. We must conclude that it came about not as a result of any new scientific evidence, but simply because people grew weary of a file after years of wrangling, and wanted it off their desks two days before the Christmas break.

To add to the depressing irony of the situation, the vote took place a mere week after the European Centre for Disease Control released a report which says that, after 10 years of steady decline, Salmonella rates have stopped falling in Europe, and that the continent is in the grips of another massive outbreak.

Is this really the way forward for EU policy? Tiring the decision makers into submission?  Such is the state of ‘scientific’ decision-making in Brussels: even policymakers themselves don’t see a need to maintain the façade of basing decisions on science. Instead they openly acknowledge the ugly truth: politics trumps science, and political expediency rules all in Brussels.

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