Leakage of nitrofene (a prohibited pesticide) in Germany: Commissioner Byrne's remarks to Parliament

June 13, 2002

Strasbourg, 12 June 2002

Verbatim report of proceedings, 11 June 2002 (Part 1)

Byrne, Commission. - ... On this question of nitrofene, I am pleased to bring Parliament up to date on the nitrofene contamination in Germany. This is a very disturbing discovery. Nitrofene is a herbicide and has been a banned substance in the European Union since 1988.

It is a probable carcinogen, with teratogenic effects. Consumers are quite rightly worried that control measures failed to prevent this contamination.

The Commission was first made aware of the contamination on 24 May. There were three immediate priorities. First, to establish from the German authorities the source and extent of the contamination; second, to trace and recall contaminated products; third, to ensure that the control authorities in the Member States were kept fully informed of developments. I am satisfied that very good progress has been made in addressing each of these priorities.

The origin of the contamination is now known. It can be traced to the storage of organic grains in a warehouse that had been used in the past to store pesticides. I am sure you will share my concern that such an elementary precaution as a thorough cleaning does not appear to have taken place before this very radical change of use was undertaken.

In addition, the contamination was discovered in industry tests in January but was not reported to the responsible authorities until May. This delay in notification has resulted in the circulation and consumption of contaminated material before the German authorities were in a position to react. Feedingstuffs from this warehouse were delivered to 90 producers of organic products through a firm that supplies to the organic sector. The German authorities have taken the necessary measures to block supplies from these producers unless and until they have been checked for the absence of nitrofene. This tracing exercise included some limited exports of poultrymeat to the Netherlands, Denmark, Belgium and Austria.

The authorities are also in the process of tracing smaller quantities of organic cereals supplied directly from the warehouse to an estimated 20 other producers. Products from these companies are currently blocked. The German authorities state that full tracing will be finalised by the end of this week. This tracing exercise includes a quantity of organic wheat exported to France in January. There is also evidence of storage of conventional non-organic cereals in this warehouse between 1995 and August 2001, although not necessarily in the contaminated section. The authorities are still in the process of verifying this information.

Finally, a quantity of organic lupines was also exported to Denmark. The Danish authorities have also been notified. They have traced this product and blocked what remains on the market and the farms concerned.

The German authorities are satisfied that the origin of the contamination is confined to that particular warehouse. They point out that both organic and conventional produce have been extensively tested and no nitrofene has been found.

The Commission notes the assurances that any remaining contamination is limited and can be contained. We also note the considerable efforts to trace products and remove them from the market. Member States have been kept fully informed of this entire process. A further meeting of the Standing Committee on the Food Chain today took note of the assurances from the German authorities and agreed that there is no need to take additional measures for the moment.

The overall situation obviously remains under close watch. The standing committee will meet again on Friday to review developments. In particular it will want to learn of the progress in tracing the estimated 6% of contaminated produce which remains to be fully traced.

While there is considerable concern in all Member States, especially with the still fresh memories of recent food safety crises, only Belgium has announced national restrictions. This may be a legacy of the dioxin crisis which has understandably left deep scars in Belgium. I expect, nonetheless, that the clarifications provided in the standing committee this week will prove sufficient to lift these restrictions.

We must be careful also to focus on the broader picture. These recent events confirmed for me that our new approach to food safety is going in the right direction. In particular, the necessity for food traceability from farm to fork and for rapid and transparent exchange of information has been confirmed. Both are critical to the identification and swift recall of contaminated products.

As always, lessons need to be learned and the Commission is looking at the following issues in particular. How did such contamination occur in the first place when nitrofene has been banned in the EU since 1988? Can we be fully confident that warehouses formerly used to store dangerous substances are safe for food storage? Could more be done to ensure that federal authorities are notified immediately of incidents of contamination, allowing them to notify the Commission and other Member States, not just in Germany but in other federal countries as well? In particular, what should be done to address the fact that the contamination was known to the laboratories and industry for months before the authorities were informed? Similarly, was the rapid alert system notified of these developments as intended?

These are issues I will now be taking up with the federal authorities in Germany. A mission of the Food and Veterinary Office will take place shortly to assist in this process. Previous FVO reports on both residue control measures and controls in the organic food sector in Germany will also be taken fully into account. I can assure you that Parliament will be kept fully informed of all these developments....

Byrne, Commission. - In answer to Mr Kindermann's question on how we can ensure that Member States carry out their work properly, first of all it is the primary role of the authorities in the Member States to carry out their functions and to comply with the legislation. That is a responsibility that is imposed imposed primarily on the Member States themselves.

In addition to that, there is the function of the FVO in ensuring that this work is done. Their function is to inspect the inspectors. In carrying out that task, they produce reports which are published on the Internet.

In answer to Mr Mulder, that is what happened in this instance. The FVO carried out this work. There were reports on residues in Germany in July 2001 and on controls in the organic sector. These reports, which found serious weaknesses, are already available on the Internet. They have been the subject of discussion in the past. I reiterate to Mr Mulder what I said in answer to Mr Kindermann: the role of the FVO is to inspect the inspectors. It cannot ensure that every single plant is carrying out its work properly and carefully. That is a function for the inspectors employed by the Member States themselves.

The third question related to whether Belgium and Germany have been treated unequally. Discrimination means treating two situations which are the same in a different manner, or treating two different situations in the same way.

In this instance we have two different situations. They are not comparable in scale. Large sections of the pig and poultry industry in Belgium were affected at that time. In Germany an estimated 1% of the organic sector - itself a niche sector which amounts to only 2% of overall production - is concerned in this instance. The German authorities made good progress in tracing and recalling potentially contaminated products. Unfortunately the scale of the dioxin problem in Belgium made tracing much more difficult.

It is important to recall that, because we have been working together over the last two-and-a-half years, we have put in place safety measures to ensure traceability. In this instance the legislation did work. It was not in place to assist those who were in charge of the issues in 1999. There was a significant delay in reporting the problems in Belgium, resulting in the risk of dissemination of the dioxin throughout Belgium and other Member States, in circumstances where the level of contamination, particularly of pork and poultry, was very significant - much more widespread than in the present instance.

The handling of the nitrofene contamination has met with general satisfaction in the Member States. It has been discussed in the standing committee today and will be discussed again on Friday. Only Belgium considered the EU response to the dioxin crisis unsatisfactory in terms of the EU-wide ban. Third countries were also threatening measures against all EU exports, in the absence of proof that the problem was confined to Belgium. Once again, there is a significant difference between the two situations.

My first important decision on assuming office was to lift restrictions on the export of Belgian beef arising from the dioxin crisis. You will appreciate that this was not a comfortable decision for a new Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection with responsibility for food safety on his very first day in office. Nonetheless I took it because I was advised to and the evidence that was put before me supported it. I was satisfied that the easing of restrictions was justified.

I therefore take very seriously any suggestion that the Commission may have treated two Member States differently merely because one is large and one is small. I am very sensitive to these issues, not least because of where I come from. It would be entirely wrong for anyone to think that the Commission's decisions over the last week were based on anything other than the scientific facts and the advice given to me and the standing committee which led us to conclude that our decisions were the right ones.

I insist that my decision was based solely on objective analysis, completely divorced from any consideration of the size of the Member State involved. That is my position....

Byrne, Commission. - In answer to the first question by Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf, the situation here is that there are residue monitoring plans in place at both EU and Member State level. These plans include banned substances such as nitrofene. The plans have proven their effectiveness in recent months. The presence of chloramphenicol, for instance and, indeed, nitrofene were identified by this procedure. They are both banned substances that were brought to light by the use of this procedure. Finally, such testing extends to both imported and domestically produced products. A number of Members raised that point.

Food and feedingstuffs must be safe, irrespective of their origin. The residue plans from third countries, which are obligatory under EU legislation, are carefully checked to ensure that the necessary controls are in place. The same issue arises with candidate countries. We exercise the same degree of care to ensure compliance.

The second question relates to the Green Paper and whether any sectors are going to be excluded. The financial sector will be excluded and the whole area of food safety legislation will not be covered because it has its own separate legal regime.

Parliament will be involved; not only will Parliament's opinion on the original paper be taken into account, but also we await the opinion on this follow-up paper. So Parliament has an opportunity to present an opinion on both papers. The reason we moved ahead was not, I can assure you, through any disrespect to Parliament, but because there was a considerable degree of pressure by the Council and others. Also it was felt that the first paper was not as detailed as people wanted. I felt that it was useful to make the follow-up paper more detailed to assist Parliament in reaching its conclusions and perhaps providing an even more valuable opinion for me to take into account when we come to draft the final framework directive. Obviously Parliament will have a full role, as it normally does.

I was then asked whether I would take into account the better regulation communication by President Prodi last week. I confirm that I will and I also confirm what I said in the Committee on Legal Affairs and the Internal Market some weeks ago, that I was involved in the work on the sales promotion directive. My services and I support that. That piece of legislation is compatible with this communication and with our general plans on unfair trading practices.

Mrs McCarthy is concerned that we are moving very fast. That is probably true. However, it is intended to consult fully with stakeholders. As I said, there will also be provision for stakeholders on all sides to have a role in the operation of the legislation when it becomes operational.

Mr Staes goes back to the point about Belgium and unequal treatment. I can only repeat what I said earlier. Neither I nor my services were motivated by any considerations of the size of the Member State.

To Mrs Oomen-Ruijten I can say that we in the European Union have only known about this since 24 May, although private laboratories in Germany have known since January. We are very unhappy that it took so long to notify the federal authorities. As I said earlier, this point is being taken up with the federal authorities. This is an issue of some concern and I know it is a concern in the countries with a federal structure, where sometimes there is perhaps not the same speed of.72 11-06-2002 communication between regions or Länder and the federal authorities. But I must insist that at European Union level our interlocutor is the federal government and therefore the institutions of the European Union cannot be mollified by responses from Member States with a federal structure that really there is nothing they can do because the problem resides in their Länder or regions. That is not a response that we at European Union level can accept.

As regards third countries, I can only repeat what I said earlier in response to Mr Graefe zu Baringdorf. They are treated in an equivalent manner to Member States.

Mr Whitehead then asked if I would come back again when I have more information. I am always happy to come back to Parliament with up-to-date information on any issue, particularly an issue of such importance as this.

On the second question, he asks me about the accumulation of case-law and fair trading. People used to a common law system are often anxious that what we are trying to do here is move closer to a codified system which they would not feel totally happy with.

I addressed this issue before when I was here and I said on that occasion that I am sensitive to this point, both because of where I come from and because of my professional background. In our thinking on this and in the legislation put in place, we will seek to ensure that existing legal systems in the European Union are fully taken into account.

Mrs Patrie then asked me about the Green Paper. She may have misunderstood what I said earlier, or I may not have expressed myself very well. In bringing forward the paper at this time I did not intend any discourtesy to the House in not awaiting the opinion, but it was important for us to add further detail to the first proposal and give Parliament an opportunity to produce an even better opinion on our work in this area.

Finally, in response to Mrs Keppelhoff-Wiechert, I agree that there are problems in Germany and that there were delays.

One of the federal agencies in Germany knew about this for quite some time and failed to inform the federal authorities. It was not just a question of the Länder knowing and failing to pass on information. A federal agency had that information and failed to pass it on.

There is one other issue I have some small concern about, or maybe it is a serious concern. Very often private laboratories have information on food safety issues. Under confidentiality clauses, they fail to disclose this information to the relevant authorities. We have resolved that to some extent with the food law that we passed here a couple of months ago, but unfortunately the requirement and the legal obligation for private laboratories to disclose relevant information to the public authorities will not become operational until 2005. This is a problem. It is something that has to be addressed by Member States, particularly those with a federal structure, to ensure that information available to private laboratories is made available to those who make public health decisions.

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