Squabbles keep food regulator under clingfilm

Click to follow
The Independent Online

The creation of the European Food Standards Authority has been hit by a series of delays and squabbles, leading to fears about the future of the new regulator whose powers will affect the likes of Tesco and Compass.

The problems emerged last week after the European Commission had to re-advertise for an executive director to head the EFSA, nearly three months after it first asked for applicants.

The commission has admitted that too few candidates of high calibre had applied for the post, partly because EU members are still arguing over which Euro- pean city should be its home. The potential list of bases for prospective candidates ranges from Finnish capital Helsinki, to Lille in northern France, down to the warmer climes of Barcelona and Parma.

The Italians have made much of Parma's reputation for fine foods but Helsinki, 500 miles south of the Arctic Circle, is the favourite. Finland insists it deserves a big European agency, leading to serious doubts that many industry high-flyers will apply for the post.

The job could be one of the most influential but challenging in the European food industry. The agency will give member states and retailers advice and issue safety alerts on issues such as food safety, animal welfare and labelling.

Consumer groups and indus- try executives admit the delays and rows have left them "frustrated". One senior source said: "This seems to be virtually crippling everything they're trying to do."

Part of the problem is the unusual timetable for its key appointments. Although the first ads seeking a director were pub- lished in late February, the task of selecting interviewees and appointing a director belongs to a 14-strong management board. But this board, which could include a senior Tesco executive, its technical expert John Lockworth, has yet to be appointed.

A shortlist of 30 candidates is still before the European Parliament for discussion. The Council of Europe then has to make a final decision. That process could take until late July to be completed. It is then likely to take until the autumn for a director to be recruited and take up the post. He or she then has to recruit up to 600 staff.

The delays are embarrassing for the Directorate General for Health and Consumer Affairs, which is headed by commissioner David Byrne and is in charge of setting up the EFSA. The Nice summit of EU heads of state in December 2000 "clearly expressed the view" that the EFSA should be operational by early 2002.

A spokeswoman for Mr Byrne denied this deadline had been missed. She said the EFSA was operational, in the form of a small team of commission officials in Brussels.

She admitted, however, that it had no management board, senior executives, scientific advisory committees or headquarters. That process, she explained, would be completed this year.

But a food industry source said these delays could further unsettle potential candidates in food retailers and producers. "The industry is very competitive, and there are a lot of good jobs for high calibre candidates that pay very well. It's possibly not the most exciting opportunity," he said.

"It doesn't bode well for the birth of any organisation that could have such a major impact on the European food industry."