The EU's processors have called on the bloc's administrative arm to drop a proposal that would allow the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) to charge companies fees for assessments.
In a letter to the European Commission, the Confederation of Food and Drink Industries of the EU (CIAA) said any move to charge fees might disadvantage small companies
Charging fees would also not serve to meet the Commission's aim of providing a stable income to the bloc's food risk assessment agency, the industry association said.
The criticisms echo those of EFSA itself, which also submitted similar reservations to the Commission as part of a public consultation on the proposal. EFSA also believes charging fees might be seen to undermine the agency's independence and
"We agree that increased and stable financial resources are needed," the CIAA stated. "However, we have strong doubts as to whether the payment of fees for EFSA services could be the solution. The contribution of fees is not predictable, and as such, not a stable source of income."
The submissions were published this week by the Commission as part of the decision making process.
In its letter to the Commission, EFSA leans against setting up such a system at the present time. If the advice is taken, companies could continue to get their risk assessments for free.
"The possibility of EFSA charging fees should be considered in light of the fact that EFSA is already under scrutiny on its real and perceived independence and is a young organisation which is still developing its trust profile with its stakeholders, institutional partners and consumers," EFSA's board of directors stated.
Companies submit dossiers and studies on new foods and ingredients to EFSA, which assesses whether these would pose a health risk to people.
A positive scientific opinion on such ingredients as genetically modified corn usually results in Commission approval for introduction in the EU market. Currently companies do not pay for the risk assessments.
Last year the Commission proposed levying fees for the risk assessments as a means of partially funding EFSA's work. A public consultation on the proposal has just ended.
The board also called on the Commission not to make EFSA dependent on such fees as the basis for its budget, saying fees would not be
"EFSA needs to be adequately funded," the board stressed in the letter. "This needs to be true whether or not a fee system is introduced so that EFSA can deliver scientific risk assessments across all its remit, and continue to communicate on its findings."
The board also expressed concern that the EU's budgetary authority would reduce its contribution to EFSA's budget automatically to take account of any fee income.
Such a situation would leave EFSA dependent on funding that would change each year according to the number of dossiers submitted for risk assessment.
Such a situation would introduce an element of uncertainty to resource allocation and planning, the board stated.
"It is therefore not clear whether charging a fee would indeed assist with the overall EFSA budget," the board stated.
Other concerns relate to a potential for skewing of EFSA's priorities away from food safety areas that would not attract fees.
"If fees are to be part of EFSA's funding it should be clear that the important self tasking work which enables EFSA to develop new risk assessment methodologies, or determine the significance of an emerging risk should not be put under pressure by the need to meet the demands of those paying fees for evaluations of substances or products," the board stated.
If fees are imposed these should be collected by the Commission instead of EFSA as a means of preserving the agency's independence, the board suggested.
During 2006 EFSA's scientific panels issued 136 opinions, some on submissions from private companies, others from queries sent to it by the Commission and the EU Parliament.
Among those, are three scientific opinions on applications for the placing on the market of genetically modified plants. EFSA also evaluated eight food additives. Three others were issued on feed additives.
One panel dealt with three dossiers related to novel foods applications. The
panel issued an opinion on the safety of noni juice, a novel food ingredient authorised in 2003.
The panel also issued two statements related to novel foods applications, one on rice drinks with added phytosterols and another one on the addition of DHA-rich oil from micro algae to an extended range of foods.
EFSA also assesses health claims made for specific foods.