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EFSA: Food safety – politics and science simply cannot mix - by Martin Banks.

Trying his best to sound non-partisan, the former president pointed out that the waves of refugees coming to Europe could be linked to conflicts caused by food shortages brought on by climate change. Which is why, Obama argues “[We need] better seeds, better storage, crops that grow with less water, crops that grow in harsher climates,” especially since “I let the science determine my attitudes about fFood production and new technologies… It’s okay for us to be cautious about how we approach these new technologies but I don’t think we can be close-minded to it.”

President Obama’s speech comes at a crucial time, as the safety of the food chain has come under the spotlight again in Europe, raising profound questions about the interactions between science, politics and new technologies, interactions that can be so toxic that they actually yield results that are harmful to consumers.

Just look at the wrangling currently unfolding over formaldehyde, a naturally occurring compound commonly used to keep fowl (and humans) from contracting food poisoning. The European Commission is having a hard time re-approving the use of the substance as a feed additive due to strong opposition from activists and certain member states.

The deadlock over formaldehyde shouldn’t have happened: the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded that the compound does not cause cancer could be authorized as a feed additive as long as worker protection measures were taken.  In 2014, the agency concluded that “there is no health risk for consumers exposed to the substance through the food chain.”  Its conclusions are in line with the world’s leading scientific bodies, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the U.S. and the World Health Organization (WHO).

Even so, the conclusions of the widely-respected EU agency have been called into question by, among others, the Health, and Environment Alliance (HEAL), a Brussels-based NGO, which managed to persuade Poland and Spain to take unilateral action and stop putting the substance in chicken feed.

The consequences were quick to follow. Weeks after Poland gave its order, a widespread salmonella outbreak – traced to a Polish farm – led to the deaths of two people, a 5-year-old in Croatia and another person in Hungary. Soon afterwards, EFSA reported that 218 confirmed cases and 252 probable cases of salmonella sourced from Polish farms were recorded between May 2016 and the end of February this year.

The formaldehyde debate shows the serious health repercussions that happen when science and politics clash. Another good example is that of the herbicide glyphosate. Originally marketed under the trade name Roundup, glyphosate accounts for about 25 per cent of the global herbicide market. In the EU, glyphosate-based herbicides are used for weed control for a wide range of crops including cereals, oilseed rape, maize, beans and sugar beet. Several European countries, including Germany, use glyphosate herbicides on almost half of their total crop area.

However, despite the fact that EFSA, the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA), the EPA, a joint WHO/FAO committee and a swathe of other regulators concluded that glyphosate was not carcinogenic, a barrage of criticism seeking to discredit these institutions’ competence as scientific bodies followed. At the forefront of the attack on EFSA were the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) and Italy’s Ramazzini Institute, which both continued to actively promote the alleged glyphosate-cancer link.

Read more: #EFSA: Food safety – politics and science simply cannot mix : EU Reporter

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