Consumer and food lobbies continue old EU dance
By Honor Mahony
By the time a proposed EU law emerges from the Brussels legislative system it has normally been tweaked, pulled, reshaped and lobbied to within an inch of its original life – and this nowhere more true than for laws that affect the food and drink industry.
This massive industry, employing more than 4 million people in Europe and with an annual turnover of €800 billion, keeps a very close eye on Brussels, which has recently become much more vocal on issues affecting public health.
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Lobbyists from both sides of the fence – consumer and industry – try and get in as early as possible to shape the law as it comes from the note taking stage in the commission.
"We try to get in at desk officer stage, then head of unit then up the chain", said one food industry lobbyist adding that "it is better to get in as quickly as you can".
Muriel Danis from the consumer organisation, BEUC, says "in practice we can be involved very much from the beginning - long before the proposal is taking shape in the European Commission."
But the tension between the two sides starts almost immediately. And it concerns whether to regulate or not.
"Industry is happy to have dialogues and talk and talk about an issue – a way of putting off regulation. We have evidence that self-regulation by industry does not work, so we call for laws," says Lara Garrido-Herrero from the European Public Health Alliance (EPHA) adding that the three main areas of concern are "labelling, health claims and advertising to children."
For its part industry makes no bones about not wanting to be regulated. "We do believe that industry should be allowed to self-regulate," says Thierry Habotte of the CIAA, an umbrella group representing companies such as Pepsi, Kraft and Danone.
And so far, this commission has erred more on the side of industry.
After a conference of EU and US officials on obesity in mid-May, EU health commissioner Markos Kyprianou indicated that companies would be allowed to regulate themselves on the obesity issue.
Instead of regultion, the commission agreed to set up an "obesity platform" calling on companies, health experts and consumer groups to finds ways to tackle the issue.
The labelling law
But Brussels does regulate sometimes, and a showcase for the lobbying process was the recent law on labelling passed two weeks ago in the European Parliament.
When the law first came out of the commission, it was more in favour of the consumer, advocating strong and detailed labelling.
It went though the parliament for a first reading – an institution normally more supportive of consumer rights – and emerged in a state far more palatable to industry.
One person close to the process said "we had the impression that industry had written some of the amendments themselves and MEPs had simply said OK."
The source added that German MEPs tended to vote en bloc, across party lines, and often in favour of national industry.
But member states sent back the proposal ignoring most of parliament's amendments. The second reading was even "more bitter" said a consumer lobbyist adding that German centre-right MEPs, particularly hardline on the issue, were "really not pleased" with the member states' position.
However, before the matter came to a crunch between the institutions, a deal was struck, at a half-way house between what industry had wanted and what consumer groups were pushing for.
Ms Danis, from BEUC, said that she believed the turnaround, which her organisation "welcomed" came thanks to "the concrete examples of misleading claims on food products we presented to MEPs, and because we showed them what the proposed amendments would mean in practice."
Intergroups, experts and overstating the case
And the European Parliament is fertile soil for effective lobbying.
"We have someone dedicated to relations with the European Parliament. We concentrate a lot on relations with MEPs using seminars, meeting and experts groups," says Mr Habotte.
"Because they're so busy, some MEPs hear one effective and persuasive argument and their mind is made up, so it's best to get to key MEPs [such as MEPs in charge of drawing up reports] to hear industry's point of view early," one lobbyist for a major food company said.
But she warned against overstating the case of the strength of the food and drinks lobby. "It often takes CIAA [the food and drinks umbrella group] ages to get a common position on something because so many companies have to agree."
Intergroups and agencies
Surrounding lobbying on any issue is how open the lobbying is, who does the lobbying and how.
The commission is sometimes criticised by consumer groups for arming itself with advisory agencies - including the European Food Safety Authority, the European Medicines Agency and the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work – that contain too many people linked to the industry and not enough consumers rights advocates.
Intergroups in the European Parliament can be another source of criticism. One consumer lobbyist complains that these groups - set up by political groups to provide forums for experts - are not transparent enough, with no official list and information only being obtainable through political secretariats.
These intergroups are seen as a valuable "second-level" lobbying option by lobbyists. "They save time. Instead of going to one MEP at a time, we can hit a whole group at once with our arguments", says one Brussels-based lobbyist.
Food- and-drinks- based intergroups include one on wine, one set up externally by BEUC and EPHA and one agriculture and food issues.
As one lobbyist puts it "MEPs can be anybody's middle-aged mother and don't necessarily know the issues very well – it's good to have experts."
Sometimes it is not clear where the line is drawn, however. For example, the environment and public health committee has a list of externals that it consults on food safety and health issues. They are mainly doctors and vets and other experts but one is the head of a well-known Brussels consultancy that also has the industry on its books.
But the issue is never completely clear cut. On the other side of the table, it is estimated that some 60 percent of consumer groups receive EU money, including the European umbrella consumer group, BEUC.
What is clear though is that the lobby both for and against this massive industry is going to continue.
With the labelling issue now on the way, the next big issue up for discussion is likely to concern the alcohol industry as Brussels plans to tackle alcohol issues through its public health mandate.
Mr Kyprianou said recently that he "did not see any immediate need for legislation" but the industry is already on high alert for the next possible battle ground.