Fair play out of REACH? The EU’s approach to restricting ammunition
The European Ombudsman has recognised a case of maladministration by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) regarding its inability to provide key documents in a timely manner. The European Federation for Hunting and Conservation (FACE) was therefore prevented from substantiating comments made during last year’s public consultation regarding the ongoing restriction procedure on lead in ammunition under REACH.
Cases of maladministration like this can compromise the actions of decision-makers and ultimately harm the reputation of the EU institutions. This situation could have easily been avoided by following due process and by relying on existing peer-reviewed research.
The already rough path of ECHA’s Annex XV Restriction Report, related to the proposal of a near-total ban on the use of lead in ammunition for hunting and sports shooting marks a new stumble. This not only jeopardizes the successful outcome of a legislative process, which affects at least 7 million citizens, but also questions the principles for which citizens exercise their right to contribute to the EU’s law and policy-making process.
We are referring to the European Ombudsman’s assessment of a case of maladministration by EFSA, directly related to the ongoing restriction procedure on lead in ammunition under REACH.
But let’s start from the beginning: As part of the dossier preparation on the human health risk assessment, EFSA provided ECHA (European Chemicals Agency) with the input data on game meat intake and lead in game meat. ECHA then used that information to calculate health impacts to hunters and their families (around 13.8 million individuals) in its 1000+ page report, which had a substantial impact on ECHA’s opinion-making thus far.
But what went wrong? Within the restriction procedure under REACH, FACE raised several questions about the figures used by ECHA, as they differed significantly from the published science on lead concentrations in game meat in Europe. Usually, anyone would be granted access to such data following a request before the public consultation.
On 23 February 2021, FACE had requested access from EFSA for the documents it had submitted to ECHA. But, since the start of FACE’s access request, there were numerous delays as well as attempts of justification and extended deadlines. After ECHA’s risk assessment public consultation had already been closed, the disclosure of the requested document to FACE was made on 13 October 2021.
This deprived FACE of its right to review the data on lead concentrations in game meat in ECHA’s Annex XV Restriction Report and the possibility to substantiate thoroughly the comments made during the public consultation. When looking at the data, the differences between the mean lead concentration from EFSA and the previous research became immediately clear with access to the data.
For example, when a handful of extreme outliers are removed from EFSA’s datasets, the lead levels in game meat harvested by rifle ammunition are below the maximum allowable level (ML) set by the European Commission Regulation EC1881/2006 for meat from domesticated animals. The impacts on health from lead need to be communicated accurately in ECHA’s work to take well informed decisions.
As it took EFSA almost eight months to take a disclosure decision (while a request for public access must be handled within 15 working days, according to Regulation 1049/2001), FACE felt it was necessary to submit a complaint to the European Ombudsman.
The European Ombudsman now holds that, as “access delayed is access denied”, FACE’s request as having constituted maladministration. This has prevented FACE, which represents 7 million European hunters, from being able to participate in ECHA’s public consultation appropriately.
Therefore, as the procedural defect is critical, FACE has requested the reopening of the public consultation at which all interested parties could present evidence related to the ECHA’s human health risk assessment.
This request is about fair play regarding policy-making for over 7 million citizens. This case is important on its own merits, but also considering another Ombudsman case previously confirmed inadequate handling by the European Commission (DG Environment) in the lead shot over wetlands restriction under REACH in May 2020.
In the current context, it is also important to highlight that as public consultations are the starting point for developing legal frameworks, it is essential for EU institutions to provide stakeholders with timely and necessary access to important information allowing them to contribute constructively to them.
Not doing so can compromise the final result, because policy-makers then have to base their assessments and decisions on incorrect or incomplete data and thus resulting in bad law-making.
If transparency is truly a key principle for the European Commission and “Increasing the participation of citizens and stakeholders in law and policy-making is an important goal of the Commission’s better regulation agenda” (as indicated in the Commission’s website), then it’s essential to treat all stakeholders with the respect for the rules that the Commission itself has set.
This is the only way to preserve the relationship of mutual trust between citizens and governments as well as the basis of the growth and the development of the European Union, which is more critical now than ever for the future of Europe.