EU Commission moves to deny reauthorisation of formaldehyde

Written by Martin Banks on 21 September 2017 in News

The European Commission has been criticised for appearing to perform a dramatic U-turn in the long-running saga surrounding the use of formaldehyde in animal feed.

The Commission has been criticised for appearing to perform a dramatic U-turn in the long-running saga surrounding the use of formaldehyde in animal feed | Photo credit: Fotolia

A verdict on whether the contentious chemical is an effective component of bird feed has been in limbo for two years with EU member countries locked in comitology.

Fed up with the inaction over formaldehyde, the Commission has now taken matters into its own hands by tabling a proposal that says reauthorisation of the chemical should be denied. 

The move has taken many by surprise, not least because the Commission has, for the past three years, recommended reauthorisation of formaldehyde.

One well-placed source in the animal feed industry told this website, “After backing reauthorisation for years, the Commission now proposes the opposite. We understand this has been done in the hope of unlocking the situation but the decision has caused general amazement.”

The source added, “The question is: how can the Commission justify this sudden change of its stance on formaldehyde.”

A Commission source said that the apparent change of policy was justified due to ongoing scientific uncertainty of safe levels of exposure of formaldehyde in animal feed.

But this appears to be in direct contradiction of advice from its own scientific committee.

The matter will next be discussed at EU level - at the comitology committee - in November when the Commission is expected to see if there is a qualified majority on the new text it has just tabled.

So far, it is believed there is no indication of a qualified majority on the Commission proposal to deny reauthorisation.

The Commission is trying to unblock an overdue decision on whether it’s safe to continue using the chemical to keep birds - and ultimately humans - from contracting salmonella food poisoning.

Last year, Poland and Spain stopped putting the substance in chicken feed, amid fears over its cancer-causing potential and safety for workers. 

Weeks later, a widespread salmonella outbreak connected to a Polish farm led to the deaths of two people, a five-year-old in Croatia and another person in Hungary.

Polish authorities found no trace of salmonella in the feed given to the farm’s hens, leading them to conclude the disease originated from another source. Feed manufacturers and the chemicals lobby cited the outbreak as evidence of a failure in the EU’s policymaking process. Although formaldehyde has been used for years to protect against salmonella, health concerns have grown in recent years.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) said the compound does not cause cancer and could be authorised 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 Organisation (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 Commission’s Scientific Committee on Occupational Exposure Limits sets safe levels for workers’ use. In 2016 it set the level for formaldehyde at 0.3ppm, much higher than the exposure level for use in feed.

The Commission recently answered two questions about use of formaldehyde in pathology. In both cases it said the Commission has no intention to ban it. The second question concludes that “In fact, the adoption of exposure limit values should be seen as providing a practical tool to assist employers to demonstrate that they comply with the general requirements of the directive which already apply in full to this carcinogenic substance.”

The fact that the Commission has put forward a proposal for denial, even in the absence of a qualified majority on the matter, has surprised some.

They include Loretta Hunter, Compliance Director at Anitox, a small US producer of feed additives, who told this website, “The science is clear: EFSA says it works and the SCOEL says it can be safely used. What do the European Commission and the member states need to re-authorise a product that has been on the EU market for decades?”


About the author

Martin Banks is a senior reporter for the Parliament Magazine

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