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Health and Consumer Policy

Personally Speaking

Do you buy medicines on-line?

Have you ever been tempted to buy medicines on-line? If so, did you wonder whether the on-line pharmacy or retailer of medicines was operating legally or whether the medicines you are buying are safe and fit for purpose?

As part of its policy against falsified medicines, the Commission has designed a logo that, at the latest from mid-2015, will appear on the pages of on-line pharmacies and retailers of medicines legally operating in the EU.

This logo, officially adopted today, will enable you to distinguish between legal pharmacies or retailers of medicines, and rogue ones. All it takes is a click on the logo. You should then be taken to the responsible authority website of the country where the pharmacy or retailer is settled. If it is listed there you can proceed with your purchase safe in the knowledge that you are dealing with a legal operator. If it is not listed there, stop and choose a legal operator from the list.

As falsifications become more sophisticated, the risk that fake medicines affect EU consumers is on the increase. Thanks to this new logo, I trust that consumers will find it easier to make safe and informed purchasing decisions.

Will you save a life today?

Giving blood is an extraordinary act of generosity. Today as we mark World Blood Donor Day I would like to encourage each and every European citizen to regularly make this gift of life – the gift of blood.

We all may find ourselves in a situation where we need blood transfusions either to recover from blood lost after a major accident, or as a treatment for certain diseases.

Donations of blood and plasma form the basis for a wide range of essential, often life-saving, therapies. Blood and its components are also used for routine surgical procedures.

Such much needed and much used blood cannot, however be taken for granted.

In Europe, there are 15 million blood donors...and 500 million people. There are clearly not enough of us donating blood. And the challenge is even bigger than that! Europe does not only need more donors, it needs responsible donors who are in a position to donate safe blood.

Blood must be safe to prevent the transmission of diseases and to protect both the donors and the people who will receive blood. This is why there are European Union rules to ensure that blood and blood components used across Europe meets certain quality and safety requirements 1.

By giving blood we have the power to save lives.

Where can you donate blood?

1 Directive 2004/33/EC of 22 March 2004 implementing Directive 2002/98/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council as regards certain technical requirements for blood and blood components

Breaking free from the deadly grip of tobacco

Tobacco is the most significant cause of premature death in the EU, responsible for nearly 700,000 deaths every year. Yet one in three Europeans smoke, and most of them are only teenagers when they light up their first cigarette: 70% are under 18!

World No Tobacco Day, which we mark today, serves as a reminder that it is in our hands to address the suffering, illness and waste that tobacco consumption creates.

The new EU rules on Tobacco Products, which entered into force earlier this month, are an important step in this direction.

The new rules will ensure that tobacco products look and taste like tobacco products; and will improve the functioning of our European Union Internal market for these products.

In two years' time, all packs of cigarettes and roll-your-own tobacco sold in the European Union will present large photo and text warnings on both sides of the pack. Tobacco products will look the same everywhere in the EU; and all citizens, everywhere in the EU, will get the same information about the severe health consequences of smoking.

Tobacco products with characterising flavours – such as pina colada, or vanilla – will be taken out of the market. The same goes for small lipstick style packages. This will mark the end of attractive and heavily flavoured cigarettes which appeal to children and young people.

I am persuaded that these measures, harmonising the internal market in tobacco products, will discourage many teenagers from lightening up that first cigarette and keeping the habit.

I count on the national governments to translate this new EU law into reality.

World No tobacco day is also a good day to reflect on whether the many other actions in place in the Member States - smoke free public places, tobacco taxation, campaigns, awareness-raising – are working, and to act accordingly.

Every day could be a World No tobacco day. Let us all work together towards this goal.

European Patients’ Rights Day

European Patients’ Rights day is a reminder that national and European health policies need to deliver for patients, with patients. It is a reminder to all health policy makers that patients must remain at the heart of our decisions and policies.

As health Commissioner, I am committed to upholding the patient-centred principles enshrined in the EU Treaty and the Charter of Fundamental Rights: a high level of health protection for all, the right for all to benefit from medical treatment and access to healthcare.

I fully support patient empowerment, and believe that improving the lives of patients goes hand-in-hand with improving the efficiency and quality of healthcare systems. The European Commission is committed to supporting Member States in this endeavour.

Empowering patients means ensuring they are fully informed and in control of their own health care. This is a key principle of the EU Directive on patients’ rights in cross-border healthcare which Member States were required to have transposed into national law by last October.

The Directive foresees a contact point in each Member State to provide patients with all relevant information, both on practical issues for seeking planned healthcare in another EU country and being reimbursed for it, and also on quality and safety of care.

To help improve quality of care, and patient's access to highly specialised care, the European Commission is fostering European Reference Networks. These Networks will bring together highly qualified health professionals from across the EU, advancing extremely specialised healthcare and providing a concentration of knowledge and resources for the benefit of patients. This is particularly valuable for patients with complex, low prevalence or rare conditions on which knowledge and resources are scarce and scattered.”

Bracing up for future pandemics

Commission approves a Joint Procurement Agreement for vaccines and medical counter-measures

I firmly believe that joint preparedness and solidarity between EU countries are our best assets to face serious cross-border health threats in the EU.

Most of us still remember H1N1, the ‘swine flu’ pandemic. Back in 2009 it spread across the globe and affected over 15.000 citizens in the EU. The outbreak highlighted weaknesses in the mechanisms in place in EU countries for procuring vaccines and medical products needed to fight a health crisis.

When drawing lesson learnt from the pandemic, Member States asked the Commission to introduce a common procedure for the joint procurement of medical countermeasures, and in particular of pandemic vaccines; a procedure that would allow EU countries, on a voluntary basis, to improve their purchasing power and have equitable access to vaccines and antivirals.

This is exactly what the Commission did. Today the Commission adopted a Joint Procurement agreement for vaccines and other medical countermeasures that will allow interested Member States to group purchasing orders for medical counter-measures.

Our aim is to enhance solidarity between participating Member States by guaranteeing their access to influenza vaccines as well as improving the purchasing power of those countries participating in the mechanism. The ultimate goal is that Member States can provide their citizens with the right medicines at the right time to protect them against a pandemic.

I am pleased that most Member States have declared their intention to sign the agreement. Member States have already shown a genuine interest in extending the potential benefits of such an agreement to other infectious diseases, such as botulism, anthrax, hepatitis B or polio.

Infectious diseases know no "borders". Therefore, I welcome this new agreement and trust it will put all Member States on the same footing, should another pandemic break out.

Bee health – more than honey!

To many of us, bees are these untiring insects buzzing in our gardens and producing delicious honey collected from beehives. The actual picture is much bigger though. Honeybees, the only ones we have domesticated, belong to a family of over 2500 species of bees - that live in the wild. All together they play a crucial role for the farming industry and for us: they pollinate flowers, hence vastly contributing to the production of the fruits and vegetables we eat.

Since 2007, there have been warnings from European and global publications about alarmingly high mortalities in bees in the EU and beyond. This prompted the Commission and Member States' to step up their monitoring surveys and take actions including the ban of specific insecticides (i.e. neonicotinoids). The latest survey was carried out across 17 EU Member States from autumn 2012 to summer 2013. It covered 31 832 beehives. The harmonised data collection has enabled us to compare figures in honeybee colony mortality across the participating countries who participated on a voluntary basis.

I felt somehow relieved about the latest surveys results. Its figures reveal that winter bee mortality is below 10% in several major beekeeping countries, such as Greece, Hungary or Italy. However, in Member States with relatively small bee populations, such as Belgium or Sweden, mortality in the bee population rises as high as 30%. The data shows that while there are more bees dying in some Member States, we cannot conclude that bees are disappearing. That said, the regional discrepancies we have observed call for further investigation. Further collection of data continues in 2013/2014 in order to get insight on mortality trends.

At the conference for better bee health which I opened yesterday, I invited all participants - from the apiculture and animal health sectors - to actively take part in dialogue and knowledge transfer to work out the causes behind colony losses.

I trust that new developments will arise from the collaboration of all actors involved directly or indirectly to improve the health of Europe's bee population.

How can we ease the heavy burden of chronic diseases?

Every year, two million EU citizens die of cardiovascular diseases while another 32 million suffer from diabetes and its complications. Both diseases belong, alongside cancer, to the wider group of chronic diseases, so called because of their enduring effects on patients.

The burden of chronic diseases is colossal, both in human and financial terms. Not only do chronic diseases cause Member States to spend a yearly €700 billion on healthcare for long-lasting treatments, they are also to blame for 86% of all deaths across Europe.

This is why we need to explore how to address chronic diseases in more efficient manners. One of them is to encourage all stakeholders to tie closer links and devise common solutions against a common foe.

In this spirit, I have convened the first ever European summit on chronic diseases, which takes place in Brussels today and tomorrow. Together with Ministers and senior officials, stakeholders and interest groups, we will reflect on ways forward to tackle chronic diseases in ageing societies. We will debate the medical, social and economic benefits of sustainable investments in health, and the need to make a stronger case for health promotion and disease prevention.

I am quite aware that things will not change overnight. Making our healthcare systems more sustainable, and encouraging citizens to make healthy choices, require long-lasting and consistent approaches. However, the first step in the right direction is that which matters most. Today and tomorrow mark the starting point of a closer networking for all parties involved in tackling chronic diseases.

Follow some sessions in webstreaming on the 3rd and the 4th:

Mixed Results On Fighting Tuberculosis In Europe

Today is World Tuberculosis Day. While we are not too often confronted with Tuberculosis in the European Union, this disease remains an epidemic in much of the world.

Tuberculosis, known as TB, spreads from person to person through the air and is highly contagious: it takes no more than a cough or a sneeze for the germs to be passed on. The disease can be cured but the only available treatment is a 6-month course of antibiotics.

In Europe, the outcome of fighting Tuberculosis is mixed. The good news is that, over the last decade, TB declined by 5% decline across the region. This is the result of national efforts and of our Action Plan against TB, launched in 2008 with the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control.

The bad news is that some European countries and some big cities face a growing threat: multi-drug resistant Tuberculosis, which affects mostly vulnerable populations. A 6-month course of antibiotics is difficult to complete, in particular for migrants or homeless people. They tend to stop the treatment in mid-course and resume it later, causing TB to become resistant to antibiotics. This potentially paves the way for extensively drug-resistant TB, an even more acute form of resistant TB

This is why we must do everything in our power to stop multi-drug resistant TB from progressing. Extensively drug-resistant raises concerns of a possible TB epidemic with restricted treatment options, and jeopardizes the major gains made in TB control, especially among people with low immunity, such as HIV/AIDS patients.

It is therefore vital that TB control be managed effectively and efficiently and new tools developed to prevent, treat and diagnose the disease. The Commission will continue helping Member States in their efforts to control Tuberculosis and supporting the development of an efficient vaccine.

Conference « Health in Europe – Making it fairer »

No more closed doors !

What do you do when you have a tooth ache or bronchitis? You make an appointment with your dentist or your GP, without giving it a second thought. For many of us in Europe, getting medical care is indeed straightforward.

For others, however, it is much harder. Roma, migrants, transgender people or people with HIV/AIDS, amongst others, often find closed doors when seeking healthcare in the EU. Victims of discriminatory attitudes, afraid to reveal their true identity, uninsured or unable to pay the bill, they are left stranded, their suffering unattended to.

This is not acceptable. Health is for everybody. Equality of rights and the fight against discrimination has been a fundamental tenet of the European Union since its creation and is enshrined in the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights and in EU law; not to mention a wide range of EU initiatives.

I want to help build a Europe where everyone can fulfil their health potential wherever they come from – whatever their background, circumstances, gender, race, ethnic group, beliefs, sexual orientation, or any other characteristic.

Today I am meeting with 400 participants from various backgrounds, at the conference “Health in Europe – Making it Fairer” to get a clearer picture of the extent and the causes of discrimination. Together, we will discuss what each and every one of us - EU, national governments, all stakeholders – can do so as to advance the cause of equal access to healthcare for all.

You are warmly invited to follow us in webstreaming:

International Women's Day

Mothers, carers, workers, leaders, we need you to be strong and healthy!

As mothers, carers, wives, employees and leaders in the workplace, women often juggle several jobs in one day. On International Women's Day, I want to pay tribute to women and to the key role they play in our society and economy. How better could I celebrate women than by encouraging them to take care of themselves as well as they take care of others? Because so much depends on women, all of us – men, women, elderly and children – have a vested interest in women remaining happy, strong and healthy.

Of all diseases threatening women's health, I would particularly like to highlight breast cancer, the most frequently diagnosed form of cancer in Europe. One in three diagnosed cancers in women is breast cancer. I believe that prevention and early detection is the first line of action against cancer, especially breast cancer.

Since 1987, we have worked with top cancer experts to develop straightforward and scientifically-based recommendations for cancer prevention and early detection – collectively known as the European Code against Cancer. Most of these recommendations are by now well known - "Do not smoke, avoid obesity or too much alcohol…". But do all women know that as of their 50th birthday, they should be screened for breast cancer on a regular basis? And do they know where to go?

Over a decade ago, the Council issued a Recommendation calling on all Member States to implement national population-based screening programmes for breast, cervical and colorectal cancer. This was followed by European Guidelines for quality assurance, produced by the Commission, to provide practical help to national health services.

To further help women choose the best breast cancer departments in their country or abroad, the Commission is developing the first European Quality Assurance scheme in breast cancer care. Thanks to this new scheme, women across Europe will be able to identify the clinical departments that meet top standards in terms of screening, diagnosis, treatment and post-treatment of breast cancer.

I wholeheartedly urge women in the EU to look after themselves, as generously as they look after their families and friends.

European Rare Disease Day

When I feel ill, I trust that my doctors will promptly find out what is wrong with me and prescribe me the appropriate treatment. For most patients this is a straightforward course of action, but not for all of them.

European Rare Disease Day provides an opportunity to express support to the 30 to 40 million citizens in the European Union with a rare disease, whose journey to diagnosis and treatment is riddled with doubts, and frustration.

A disease is rare when it affects less than 5 in 10,000 people, and we know of about 6000 such diseases. The reality for these patients is harsh: there is a crying need for more knowledge about each rare disease, and for better access to specialised care all over Europe.

“Alone we are rare, together we are strong

The motto, coined by groups of rare disease patients, also applies to how we approach the challenge of rare diseases at European level. Our keyword is “cooperation”. We contribute to the struggle by pooling knowledge and expertise on rare diseases, funding research on rare diseases and by authorising the best possible medicines for these diseases.

In 2008, the Commission adopted a Communication on Rare Diseases, followed in 2009 by a Council Recommendation calling on Member States to adopt national plans for rare diseases by 2013, and stressing the need to raise the visibility of rare diseases. As a result, 16 Member States have set up their own plans, and several others are at an advanced stage of preparation.

To enhance the visibility of rare diseases, the Commission worked with the Member States to enlarge the ORPHANET1 database, which today describes 5,868 rare diseases, for the benefit of health professionals and patients. In the near future, the European Reference Networks under the Cross-Border Healthcare Directive will connect highly specialised centres to enable the sharing of rare medical knowledge and to allow patients with rare diseases to get the most appropriate treatment anywhere across the EU.

The EU pharmaceutical legislation has boosted R&D and widened access to appropriate treatments. The Commission participated in setting up the International Rare Diseases Research Consortium to foster international cooperation to deliver 200 new therapies for rare diseases, and means to diagnose most rare diseases, by 2020.

It is with full awareness for the long and complex process of treating a rare disease that I spare a very special thought for patients in their daily struggle. We will continue to work hard so that one day, each and every patient with a rare disease can access the best possible diagnosis and care.


Starting life with a burden affecting body and soul

New plan to tackle childhood obesity

Around one in three children aged six to nine were overweight or obese in 2010 versus one in four children in 2008. We are clearly facing a rising phenomenon, whose immediate and future consequences shape a worrying outcome for these children and society as a whole.

Children who are overweight or obese are at greater risk of poor health later in life. The likelihood of developing cardiovascular diseases, diabetes and possibly die prematurely also increase. Every year, 2.8 million citizens lose their lives to weight-related diseases. In addition to causing much suffering, obesity and overweight also have a financial impact. Member States dedicate an estimated 7% of their healthcare budgets to treat weight-related problems.

This is why in 2013 Member States developed together a European action plan targeting childhood obesity. The action plan puts forward initiatives to: support a healthy start in life, promote healthier environments, especially in schools and preschools; restrict marketing and advertising for children, inform and empower families, encourage physical activities, and increase research. As such, the action plan adds up to ongoing initiatives aiming at reducing salt, fats, added sugar in processed food, and promoting balanced diets and active lifestyles.

Today, Member States will present this action plan to be endorsed at the Conference on Nutrition and Physical activity in Athens under Greek Presidency. I strongly support this initiative.

Animal welfare: time to take stock and look ahead

We often feel that cancer is a roll of the dice – a lottery down to our genes or environmental factors outside our control. There is no denying that these factors have a part to play in cancer prevalence. And yet, there is more to the story: smoking, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, too much sun and not enough exercise can also raise our predisposition to cancer.

From a very young age, we are drawn to animals and enjoy taking care of them. That feeling never quite leaves us as we grow up. Indeed, most European citizens show a great interest, and voice their concerns about the welfare of animals on the farm, during transportation or at the very end of their journey…

The European Commission has championed these concerns over the years in its legislation on animal welfare, one of the most progressive in the world. Unfortunately, we have observed unequal enforcement of our laws by Member States, as well as a generally poor knowledge on animal welfare. What purpose could our laws serve if they do not find a similar echo in farmers, vets, transporters, public enforcement officers, retailers, or educators across the EU?

In order to bring all actors on the same footing on animal welfare matters, in 2012 we launched a new, 5-year EU Strategy for the Protection and Welfare of Animals. Today, we will be taking stock of the Strategy's mid-term achievements at a conference featuring testimonials on the progress made in training vets, implementing the ban on conventional cages for laying hens, banning tail docking in pigs and improving transport conditions of animals.

Building a Europe for Animal Welfare is a long and winding road. Having said that, we can take pride in what we have already achieved and we will continue our work to improve the quality of animals' lives, in keeping with citizens' expectations.

I invite all of those who cannot attend today's conference to follow it live via webstreaming and to participate through social media.

One in three cancers is preventable!

We often feel that cancer is a roll of the dice – a lottery down to our genes or environmental factors outside our control. There is no denying that these factors have a part to play in cancer prevalence. And yet, there is more to the story: smoking, alcohol, an unhealthy diet, too much sun and not enough exercise can also raise our predisposition to cancer.

Today, World Cancer Day gives me the opportunity to emphasise that one in three cancers can be avoided, thanks to healthy choices.

Personally, I quit smoking many years ago and never looked back. All those who have been through the same journey will remember how much willpower it takes to kick unhealthy habits.

It is not easy to take the time to exercise, or to avoid alcohol or to stop smoking. However, these efforts pay off and can make the difference between a life of illness and a life in good health.

I firmly believe that prevention is the most cost-effective strategy for reducing the European burden of cancer. To help EU citizens take their health into their own hands, we have worked in collaboration with scientists to update the European Code against Cancer. The Code offers straightforward recommendations to fend off cancer, based on scientific findings and we will publish shortly its fourth edition.

Of course, prevention is not enough. Cancer can strike the healthiest and fittest amongst us and this is why the Commission will continue to pursue action to help Member States improve diagnosis and care for the millions of Europeans living with cancer.

Origin labelling: A solid basis for discussion

17 December 2013 - As required in the Food Information legislation (published in November 2011) I am glad that today a report was adopted which enquires on the need for consumers to be informed about the origin of meat, and the feasibility of introducing mandatory origin labelling for meat of all species, used as ingredients in foods. First of all, we found out that consumers have a keen interest in origin labelling for meat. However, when the time comes to buying meat products, the interest in knowing where the meat comes from ranks far behind the price and the quality of said product. We also observed that there is a considerable difference amongst EU Member States on consumer preferences and understanding of origin information, as well as the levels of motivation and the reasons for wishing to have such information.

Such findings will serve as a solid basis to launch discussions with the Parliament and the Council.

Based on the discussions with the Council and the Parliament, I will consider whether, and if so what steps, could be taken next. This may include, if appropriate, tabling a legislative proposal to regulate the origin of meat used as an ingredient in foods.

World AIDS Day 2013: Less stigma, more testing, earlier treatment

On 1 December, the world observes World AIDS Day.

This is a good opportunity to pay tribute to all the citizens in the European Union who live with AIDS and to the civil society organisations who work tirelessly to help prevent HIV/AIDS and to improve diagnosis and treatment to all those who live with the virus.

More importantly, World Aids Day is the occasion to raise momentum and strengthen our commitment to fighting HIV/AIDS.

In the past few days, initiatives under the first ever European HIV Testing Week encouraged people to get tested for HIV. HIV-related stigma and discrimination figures highly in the reluctance to be tested.

This is why, this year, I would particularly like to highlight the issue of HIV-related stigma and discrimination, which is a serious hurdle in the fight against HIV-AIDS.

In 2013, in the European Union, people with HIV/AIDS are still victims of stigma; are afraid of taking tests and of losing their jobs. This is not acceptable.

I intend to keep the issue of HIV-related discrimination under the spotlight throughout 2014. It is in this spirit that I plan to put forward shortly an updated EU Action Plan on HIV/AIDS with a stronger focus on fighting discrimination and strengthening the rights of people living with HIV/AIDS; and facilitating access to prevention and treatment where barriers still exist.

My wish is that by this time next year, HIV-related stigma will have diminished, and consequently more people will seek testing and receive timely treatment. In the next 12 months, the Commission will be working closely with civil society and Member States towards our shared goal of zero new HIV infections and zero discrimination.

HIV-AIDS: the time to act is now

Today, in the European Union, 2.3 million citizens carry the HIV virus. About a third of these people are not aware that they are HIV positive. If they are not aware, they will not seek treatment, their condition will deteriorate, and they are much more likely to pass on the infection to others in the meantime.

With early diagnosis, followed by the intake of anti-retroviral medicines, people with HIV can go on to live healthy lives. Without early diagnosis, the chances of survival of HIV-affected people are greatly reduced.

This is why I fully support the first ever European HIV Testing Week starting today, under the theme "Talk HIV - Test HIV". For one week, culminating on the eve of World Aids Day, the organizers of the eventwill be calling on people at risk, across Europe, to get tested for HIV.

We have made great scientific and medical advances, thanks to which a HIV-positive diagnosis is no longer a death sentence.

The Commission is keen to help fight HIV/AIDS and through its strategy to fight HIV/AIDs and its 1 billion euro contribution to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria, which has helped to provide treatment to 4 million people around the world in the past 11 years.

And still, despite our efforts, HIV - AIDS continues to spread across Europe and worldwide. With 28,000 new HIV infections in EU and EEA countries in 2011 alone, we must step up our efforts to tackle the disease at its very core.

By working together to maximise cooperation with EU Member States and civil society partners, we can break the stigma surrounding HIV and encourage people to get tested for HIV. Early diagnosis can save lives.

Not all sweetness and light: Europe's looming diabetes challenge

On 14 November, World Diabetes Day, I would like to say how the Commission is stepping up action to address this disease. With almost 32 million people1 living with diabetes in the EU, we are undeniably facing one of the biggest healthcare challenges of our time.

In Maltese, to indicate that someone has diabetes, we say "he/she has sugar". And indeed diabetes is a lifelong condition that affects the ability to keep blood sugar at normal levels. Some forms of diabetes result from genetic disorders, others are triggered by unbalanced eating and obesity. If left untreated, diabetes can lead to heart disease, kidney failure, nerve damage and eye complications. It affects all of us, young and old.

This is why we have to act, both to prevent diabetes where it can be prevented, and to help people who already have diabetes. A couple of days ago I met with stakeholders – NGOs, researchers, people with diabetes – and was inspired by their commitment and ideas, spanning from greater use of eHealth solutions to monitor glucose levels, to addressing research gaps or focusing on the social gradient of diabetes. I very much look forward to continuing working with them to address diabetes.

Early next year, I will launch a Joint Action with Member States on chronic diseases. This Joint action will single out work on diabetes - and on no other disease. In this context, work on the barriers to prevention, screening and treatment of diabetes will be developed over the next three years. This will improve cooperation among Member States and develop common guidance: on the essential elements of national Diabetes Plans, on training of health professionals, and on improving literacy to empower people with diabetes.

I believe that through this Joint Action2 and the new Action Plan on childhood obesity we can work together across the EU to reduce factors that put children and adults at the greatest risk and help improve care to diabetes patients.


The welfare of companion animals is everybody's business

28 October 2013 - The population of companion dogs and cats in the EU is estimated to be more than one hundred million. Whilst most of us love our companion animals for the joy they bring into our homes, others consider them merely as a source of income in a fast-growing business, one which can engender malpractices.

Today the European Commission will hold its first European conference on the welfare of dogs and cats involved in the breeding and trading business. Genetic selection, puppy farming or inhumane handling give rise to animal suffering and put public health at risk, if infected animals are illegally put on the market in the EU. Member States, who are responsible for tackling such issues, have developed their own standards and policies to educate and sanction breeders and traders, while promoting the responsibility of human caregivers.

With our first conference on the welfare of companion animals, we intend to bring together stakeholders from all backgrounds around the table to cooperate on how best to solve the issues related to the welfare of our feline and canine companions across Europe. The conference will also mark the launch of a study on the same theme. On the basis of the outcomes of the study and of the conference, the Commission will consider what further action is necessary in order to improve companion animal welfare and to increase transparency of information to consumers.

I am convinced that pooling resources and best practices is a very powerful tool for finding an appropriate solution to the issues of feline and canine welfare in Europe. I therefore call on all participants at the conference to take an active part in the debate, so that together we can promote respectful breeding and trading practices for these animals that share the lives of so many citizens.

Organ donation: the important role of the media

The shortfall of organs available for transplant is a serious issue in Europe. Over 64.000 people in the EU are on waiting lists to receive an organ. Last year alone, 3.800 people died while waiting – for lack of a suitable organ.

Organ donation and transplantation is organised in various ways across the EU. In Europe we have an enormous amount to share and learn from each other. This is why the European Commission supports collaboration and exchange of know-how between Member States with a dedicated Action Plan on organ donation.

This complements the safety and quality framework set out in the 2010 "Organs Directive", as well as agreements to facilitate cross-border communication and exchange of organs established by another Commission Directive adopted last year.

Legislation, projects, exchange of good practice, all this is very important, but it is not enough. If we want to help citizens who need an organ find an organ, we need to start at grassroots level and raise general awareness about how important it is to donate organs.

Earlier this month I discussed organ donation and transplantation with a group of journalists and patients. Journalists play a valuable role in raising awareness and building people's trust in the system, so that they are more likely to consider donation. Journalists can send powerful messages to a much larger audience than policy makers could ever hope to reach.

I myself was deeply touched by the testimonies of organ donors and recipients whom I have met recently.

Today, organ donation day, I would like to pay tribute to all organ donors and their families, and also to all those who are waiting – and hoping – for a suitable organ.

180 kg of food wasted per citizen every year! - How can we stop this?

16 October marks World Food Day - an occasion to remind ourselves that about 90 million tons of food is wasted annually in Europe. On average every person throws away a 180 kg of food a year, when most of it is still safe and nutritious.

Wasting food is just like throwing money out of the window. In Germany for example, food worth about 300 EUR per person goes to the bin every year while the equivalent of 231 EUR is disposed of in the UK.

There is a lot we can do to limit food waste and better manage our household budgets. We can plan our shopping and weekly meals, stick to our weekly budget, check the dates on products and be aware of the difference between the “use by” and “best before” dates. Whilst the former indicates that the food is safe for consumption until that date, the latter indicates that the product will retain its quality until that date, but will still be suitable and safe for consumption at a later stage.

It is clear that tackling food waste is not only consumers’ responsibility. It is also part of a much wider and high level plan for the efficient use of all resources in Europe. The production of food has a major impact on other valuable resources such as water, fossil fuels, land, air and the protection of ecosystems and these complex interactions are analysed in the EU roadmap to a resource-efficient Europe. A Working Group on Food Waste is currently developing good practices and options for EU actions to reduce food waste. They address a wide number of topics such as: donation of surplus food to food banks, date labelling, feed, short food supply chains, bio-energy.

Let me add a few words concerning donation of food to food banks: I welcome the recent move by Belgium to abolish the VAT on food donated to food banks. This will increase the donation of food to food banks instead of wasting food. A win-win situation for both retailers and food banks. I would encourage other Member States to look into this issue.

I am convinced that limiting food waste is something we ALL can do if we put our minds to it.

Mental illnesses likely to hit one in four Europeans during their lifetime

On every 10 October we observe World Mental Health Day. Mental health is central to our quality of life, for learning, for working, for social interaction, for living. In Europe, however, 25% of the population are likely to experience depression, anxiety disorders, schizophrenia, eating disorders or addictive behaviours in the course of their lifetime, one person in four. It is a staggering statistic, one that should make us all think.

The case for action to prevent mental illness and promote mental health is clear. Mental disorders represent an immense psychological and social distress for patients and their care-givers. They also constitute a major challenge to health systems, severely damage labour markets and generate a huge economic burden to society. The total costs of depression alone in the European Economic area amount to an approximate €136.3 billion1. The majority of these costs are linked to productivity losses from employment, while around one third fall on the healthcare system.

Studies demonstrate that effective prevention of mental illness and health promotion programmes can generate long-term cost savings1 and this is being acted upon across Europe. A recent survey2 shows that a total of 381 initiatives have been rolled out across Europe, half of them in schools, to raise awareness about mental health prevention. Such initiatives empower citizens early in life, to recognize early symptoms of a mental illness and take timely action to keep the illness from worsening.

As European Commissioner for Health, I reiterate my commitment to continue supporting initiatives to promote mental health and prevent mental diseases as I believe they will greatly benefit the interests of present and future generations of European citizens, their emotional wellbeing and, healthcare systems.


European healthcare faces a new reality

I attended the European Health Forum in Gastein for the first time last week and came back truly impressed by the energy and enthusiasm of the 600 participants - policy makers, NGOs, health authorities and scientific experts - and by the informal, fruitful debates on a wide range of issues.

A common thread I picked up was a shift in the way Europe's health community is framing the current challenges faced by us all. There was less talk of the 'crisis'. Rather, the sentiment expressed by several people is that we are facing a 'new reality'.

In this respect, the theme of this year's forum - "Resilient and Innovative Health Systems in Europe" – was particularly appropriate. With the 'new reality' we face, brought about not only by economic constraints, but by an ageing population and an increase in chronic diseases, we need to find cost-effective ways of making our health systems more sustainable and more resilient.

This will not be an easy ride for Member States, but my message to the forum was clear: the Commission is here to help. I highlighted several areas where the Commission can support Member States and offer assistance. For instance, the Commission's recent multi-sectorial and independent expert panel can, upon Member States' request, provide non-binding advice on effective ways of investing in health. Our reflection process on health systems can also help Member States exchange knowledge and good practice, and point to where EU action can add value.

I also had the opportunity to discuss with a wide range of stakeholders the main problems encountered in terms of discrimination in health, and what the EU can do to help. I remain committed to fighting the stigma and discrimination in health that many people suffer, for example, Roma people, people living with HIV/AIDS, transgender people, homosexual people, migrants and people suffering from mental health disorders. I look forward to deepening this debate at an upcoming conference in Brussels on 18 March 2014.

Dealing with stray dogs

It is with regret and sadness that I heard about the four year old boy that was mauled to death by a pack of stray dogs in Romania a few weeks ago. My heartfelt sympathy goes out to this little boy's family and friends.

Understandably, this tragic event touched the hearts and minds of many Romanians and feelings were running high to ensure that something was done to avoid such a terrible event from happening again.

The reaction by the Romanian government was to adopt a law to allow local authorities to euthanize stray dogs that have been kept in a shelter for more than 14 days.

Whilst respecting the Romanian Parliament's decision and acknowledging that this issue falls outside the scope of EU legislation, I would like to recall Romania's international obligations as a member of the World Organisation for Animal Health (OIE).

In fact, I wrote to Mr NICOLĂESCU GHEORGHE-EUGEN, the Minister for Health who is responsible for controlling stray dogs in Romania on 1 October and reminded him of the OIE recommendations that consider euthanasia as a measure to be taken only in combination with other measures to control stray dog populations, and only as a last resort. I also reminded the Minister of such recommendations that Romania had signed up to on control methods for handling stray dog population which detail several alternative and less extreme control methods such as sterilisation.

Take your health to heart!

Every year on the 29th September, we celebrate World Heart Day.

This is an occasion to remind ourselves that we can do much to prevent heart problems. This year the international health community particularly stressed how healthy habits early in life can help save you from heart diseases.

So, how much does it take to keep your heart ticking nicely? We all know that it is primarily a matter of not smoking, cutting down on fats and sugars, eating our daily share of fruits and vegetables and indulging in regular physical work-out. As a result of adopting such healthy habits, as many as 80% of premature deaths from heart disease and stroke could be avoided.

In Europe, however, smoking rates remain high at 28%; teenagers are enticed into smoking by increasingly attractive and flavoured tobacco products; one in four children aged 6 to 9 is already overweight or obese. The earlier in life children or teenagers have a serious weight problem, or smoke, the more likely it is they will be exposed to heart diseases in adulthood.

This is why I am committed to ensuring that tobacco products look and taste like tobacco products, so that fewer children and teenagers are attracted into starting to smoke. It is in this spirit that I see the proposal to revise the Directive on Tobacco products.

I am also keen to help promote healthy diets and physical activity, in particular through the work of the EU Platform for action on Diet, Physical Activity and Health and through co-operation with Member States to reduce salt and saturated fats used in food.

As the saying goes "Prevention is better than cure". In the current climate of economic constraints, I believe that it makes more sense than ever.

Europe keeps close tabs on rabies

September 28th marks the anniversary of the death of Louis Pasteur, the French scientist who became famous for developing the first rabies vaccine in 1885. It is only fitting therefore that we observe Word Rabies Day on the same date, to celebrate the progress achieved in the fight against the virus, as well as continue to join forces for the challenges that remain.

Rabies is a preventable but potentially deadly virus that is commonly transmitted to humans by a bite from an infected animal vector such as foxes, wolves or dogs. In Western Europe as in most of Central Europe, rabies has been eradicated. However, in Asia and Africa mostly, 55.000 people still die of rabies every year.

Vaccination of animal vectors and awareness-raising campaigns require international coordination to successfully wipe out the virus. Europe is actively involved in such efforts. Firstly, we work with the FAO, the WHO and the OIE to coordinate international control measures and policies against rabies. Secondly, the EU co-finances national programmes for the oral vaccination of wildlife in third countries along the EU external borders. Last but not least, control measures are also in place between Member States. The virus may have disappeared from our region, but the risk for its re-introduction is high. There are numerous examples of illegal introduction of animals, mainly kittens or puppies, coming from countries where the disease is endemic. In order to prevent potentially rabid animals from crossing borders, strict conditions and controls apply to pet animals coming from endemic countries. On the other hand, the EU pet passport has proven an excellent tool to facilitate the free movement between Member States of the regularly revaccinated pet.

The prevention of rabies is a matter of shared responsibilities, at international, national and individual levels alike. I therefore call on all pet owners to comply with EU animal health requirements so that together, we manage to keep the virus at bay.

Professor Maurice Tubiana, cancerologist, has passed away at the age of 93

On 24 September, Professor Maurice Tubiana, cancerologist and former President of the French Academy of Medicine, passed away at the age of 93. His death reminds us of the fact that sometimes, it takes the personal commitment and dedication of key individuals to take forward the European project. Indeed, Maurice Tubiana was one of the 'fathers' of EU action on cancer. He was behind the initiative of the European Council in Milan in 1985 for a European action programme against cancer, which lead to the first European cancer programme, covering 1987 to 1989, well before a public health Article was added to the Treaty of Maastricht in 1993.

Cancer has remained an EU health policy priority ever since. We have improved cancer information, developed guidelines for cancer screening, and put emphasis on awareness raising, through successive editions of the European Code Against Cancer. In parallel, there is a major investment in cancer from the research programmes. EU action has also focussed on the main risk factors related to cancer, in particular, tobacco. In 2009, the Commission reaffirmed this commitment by establishing the European Partnership Against Cancer which is implemented in close cooperation with Member States, underpinned by a Joint Action funded by the EU Health programme.

Much has been achieved, but much still needs to be done to address cancer. A new Joint Action, on comprehensive cancer control, will start next year. A new version of the European Code Against Cancer will also be launched in 2014, underpinned by the latest scientific evidence. And we are setting up more sustainable structures for cancer information and screening.

All this goes back to the vision developed in the 1980s by pioneers like Maurice Tubiana that there would be real added value in EU action on cancer. We are continuing this work, in the interest of cancer patients across Europe.

Fighting dementia is also a matter of social inclusion

21 September is World Alzheimer's Day. On this occasion, I wish to pay tribute to dementia patients and their caregivers, whose taxing journey deserves all our praise and support.

Every 4 seconds, a new case of dementia is diagnosed somewhere around the world1 . In Europe alone, dementia affects six million people. And yet, dementia and its countless sufferings are still vastly unknown. There is a tendency to associate dementia with recurrent memory loss only. However, there is much more to it.

Over time, people with dementia end up suffering deterioration of all their cognitive functions: memory, thinking, orientation, comprehension, calculation, learning capacity, language and judgment. This makes dementia one of the major factors of disability and dependency in older people, overwhelming their lives as well as that of their caregivers to the point of social exclusion.

As the population ages, we expect dementia to affect 12 million people by 2040. It is no wonder then that dementia and its main cause, Alzheimer's disease, rank at the top of our public health agendas.

To help EU Member States address dementia, in 2011 the Commission launched a joint action - ALCOVE – to improve knowledge on dementia, and to foster exchanges on how to preserve health, quality of life, autonomy and dignity of people living with dementia and their carers. Earlier this year, ALCOVE produced a set of recommendations to health professionals and decision-makers in this regard.

There is cause for hope. Medical progress and the understanding of the brain are now well underway. However, much remains to be done at grass-root level. Raising awareness about dementia is necessary to give patients and their caregivers the support they need in their everyday struggles.

This is the purpose of national dementia action plans. While eight Member States have already adopted their plans, nine more countries are working on theirs or have committed to do so. I can only encourage the remaining Member States to follow suit.

I am confident that Dementia will remain one of our top health priorities for the decades to come and that, together, we will rise to its challenges.


Animal Welfare: Enforcement is key

Animal welfare is close to the hearts of many Europeans. This is plainly evident from the numerous petitions, letters and Parliamentary questions sent every year to the Commission. It is in fact not by coincidence that Europe's body of laws protecting animals is among the strongest in the world.

Yesterday, 18 September 2013, I had the pleasure of meeting with the members of the European Parliament's Intergroup on the Welfare of Animals. This intergroup has over time, greatly contributed to improving several of the Commission's proposals on Animal welfare. We discussed the Commission's on-going work on animal welfare. It was a fruitful discussion, where I made it clear that challenges lie ahead and its successful outcome depends on the commitment of all actors in the chain: EU law-makers, national enforcers and animal keepers alike.

Over the years, the Commission has regulated issues such as the welfare conditions of animals kept in farms as well as those of animals being transported and animals in slaughterhouses. We also adopted, as recently as last May, a package of proposals that should lead to strengthening the system of official controls and improving the system for detecting and controlling animal diseases.

During the meeting, I underlined the fact that rules only live up to expectations if they are properly enforced and suggested that there is room for improvement in enforcing animal welfare regulations. Part of the necessary groundwork has been setting a standard format for reporting of enforcement actions by Member States which will permit useful comparison and thereby an even playing field for operators.

I also raised the need for animal keepers to be better informed and trained on animal welfare. To that end, we are currently developing guidelines on the protection of pigs: for example, tail-docking of pigs can be avoided if suitable manipulable material is provided.

But how can we help keepers make better decisions? In December we can expect to have the results of the EUWelNet pilot project on establishing a network of European Reference Centres for animal welfare. The follow-up for this pilot is part of the Official Controls proposal to provide an exchange of scientific and technical expertise, enabling a better application of welfare rules by animal keepers.

In our discussions, I also stressed the importance of enforcement on animal transport. We have the leading animal welfare legislation in the world; let's make sure that we enforce them properly and uniformly. Under this Commission mandate, we are preparing important groundwork for a general animal welfare law.

I am confident that we have paved the way for key achievements in the years to come.

Unravelling the mystery behind Europe's bee losses

Bees are indispensable both to the agricultural sector and to us all. Not only do they treat us to delicious honey they also contribute to pollinating 84% of the fruits and vegetables that we consume. It is estimated that as a result of bees' work in the fields, European agriculture reaps € 22 billion a year.

This annual bonanza provided free of charge by the bees may be at risk. In Europe, as in the rest of the world, scientists and decision-makers have teamed up to identify the reasons behind high colony losses. Insecticides, pesticides, intensive monoculture, bee predators and climate change have come under scientists' scrutiny. The next question is "To what extent these factors play a role?"

In order to find that out, the Commission allocated in 2012 a €3.3 million fund to help 17 voluntary Member States conduct surveillance studies on beehive collapse and gather comparable data on the interwoven causes behind the phenomenon. Yesterday the Commission earmarked another €1.84 million to help Member States carry on with these surveys.

We are fully committed to establishing the facts, the extent of the problem, its causes and to finding possible solutions. Every step counts and I wish to thank all the Member States for their voluntary work in adding to the scientific knowledge that inches us closer to unravelling this mystery.

- Where will you see that symbol?

As of 1 September 2013, you are likely to see that black inverted triangle printed on some of the medicinal products sold in Europe.

The symbol is not a warning of danger. All medicinal products authorised on the EU market undergo prior testing, to prove that they are safe and efficient. Furthermore their monitoring continues throughout their entire lifespan.

The symbol indicates that the "marked" medicinal product is still being monitored for unknown side effects. All of us, patients and health professionals included, will have the opportunity to report on any new side-effect encountered after prescribing or using that specific medicine. Our feedback will help experts gain a better insight into the properties of the product, to make it safer.

Did you know that the European pharmaco-vigilance system is one of the most advanced in the world? Well, the new symbol and your involvement in flagging new side effects will strengthen the system even further!

I therefore encourage every-one of you to take a close look at the leaflet inside the package of your medicinal products, even if you are used to taking them. Not only will the symbol appear on products authorized as of 1 September 2013. It will also appear on products such as those authorised after 1 January 2011, to indicate that they contain a new active substance under supervision.

The symbol is a call for action to all of us, reminding us that safety is everyone's responsibility.

An international code to govern international trade

In the last century, the nature of trade - and more importantly the rules that govern it - has changed. The aftermath of the Second World War saw first the struggle to produce enough food and subsequently, the economic boom that saw worldwide trade in foodstuffs increase dramatically. As part of a broad and structured approach to regulate global trade flows in food and in order to secure high safety standards, the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation and the World Health Organisation set up the Codex Alimentarius (Codex) in July 1963.

Building upon year after year of success, Codex this year, celebrates its 50th anniversary.

This gives me a useful opportunity to highlight Codex's leading role in setting standards that ensure safe, nutritious food can be made available as widely as possible. It also gives me the opportunity to highlight Codex's prime objectives of protecting consumers' health whilst simultaneously ensuring fair practices in the international food trade.

Codex works - through its subsidiary bodies: Codex Committees and Task Forces - to develop food standards that serve as a reference for international trade. Codex standards are today used across the globe to improve food safety and facilitate trade. They are also recognised under the WTO Agreement as the pre-eminent standards to follow in the field of food safety.

Codex's membership has grown from modest beginnings to some 185 countries and one Member organisation: the European Union, today. It has over 200 international NGOs and inter-governmental organisations participating as observers.

The EU is proud to be a member of Codex since 2003. The EU is committed to working with international partners around the world to upgrade food safety standards everywhere.

I am glad to add my own congratulations to Codex as it reaches this significant milestone. And in re-affirming the EU's commitment to international standard-setting bodies such as Codex, I also pledge to continue the EU's support for Codex as it carries out its important work.

Green light to EU coordination plan against cross-border health threats

I am particularly pleased to announce that the European Parliament voted today in favour of the Commission's proposal to beef up European legislation against serious cross-border health threats.

We have all heard of health threats and some of us may have been affected by them. They range from diseases such as e-coli and avian influenza to the infamous volcanic ash cloud that grounded so many planes back in 2011. When they occur, such threats are bound to have a wide-spread impact as they expand beyond borders. Some of them may even turn into pandemics.

We know from experience that when some countries do not have adequate action plans to tackle a health crisis, this can impact negatively on the neighbouring countries facing the same issue. Unequal access to treatment and medical care or poor, uncoordinated management of outbreaks may cause an increase in the number of people falling sick or even dying. This, in turn, may lead other Member States to close their borders, or impose quarantine, with subsequent repercussions on the functioning of the internal market.

The law that the European Parliament voted on today means that there will be preparedness planning and risk and crisis management coordinated at EU level for cross border threats caused by communicable diseases, chemical, biological and environmental events. EU citizens can now be assured that a robust and coordinated crisis response system is in place to protect them.

This law also means that most Member States can soon proceed with the EU-coordinated voluntary joint procurement of pandemic vaccines. These Member States will be able to provide their citizens with vaccines under better conditions than in the past.

Everybody stands to gain from this new EU-coordinated approach. Citizens will be better protected from serious cross-border threats. As for national governments, they will benefit from an improved EU-wide health-security framework and increased capacity to mount a coordinated response to health threats.

United we are stronger

People are living longer and longer but not necessarily in good health. This poses complex challenges to society as a whole. We have to ensure that the elderly receive all the care they need to live independent lives in the comfort of their homes, receive appropriate medical care when required and remain active in society. However, how can we work all this out with limited financial resources?

This intricate challenge lies at the heart of the European Innovation Partnership on Active and Healthy Ageing launched by the European Commission in 2011. The goal of the Partnership is to foster exchange of innovative best practices and know-how among all its members to cater for the needs of the elderly and help them live longer in good health.

The Partnership fosters the creation of so called "Reference Sites". These are coalitions of regions, cities, integrated hospitals or care organisations that provide innovative services with proven added value to citizens and healthcare systems.

I am pleased that today 32 reference sites are rewarded for bringing about concrete benefits to older people. The creative solutions presented by these European regions also enhance the efficiency of health and social care systems, and bolster innovation and economic growth. By sharing their know-how with the members of the Partnership, these outstanding sites create momentum for more successful projects and also help all members of the Partnership do more with less.

I extend my congratulations to the rewarded reference sites as well as to all the Partnership members for their hard work and dedication. Together, we can work toward developing sustainable solutions for an age-friendly society.

Children are not small adults!

When our children fall ill, we want to make sure we give them the right medicine at the right dosage. In the past, this was not always straightforward as often medicinal products were not specifically developed or adapted for children. This has long been a source of concern for parents, the medicinal profession and health politicians.

The EU addressed this serious gap in healthcare with the Paediatric Regulation that came into force in 2008.

A report has just been released on the implementation of the regulation. I am pleased to see that in five years, significant progress has been made on the research and the safety of children's medicine. Since 2008, 31 out of 152 new medicinal products have been authorized for paediatric use and many more authorisations are expected in the coming years.

In addition, more than 18.000 studies on about 2.200 medicinal products for children's use have been submitted by the pharmaceutical industry to document the safety and efficacy of their products.

Children are not small adults. They require tailored medical treatments. The pharmaceutical industry has responded positively to our call by stepping up its research efforts to meet children's specific needs. I am very satisfied about this positive shift and will do my utmost to keep it going.

China and the ban on animal testing for cosmetics

I have just returned from a 4-day visit in China, where I took part in several high-ranking meetings focusing among others, on product safety, medical devices, cross-border health threats and cooperation in the area of animal diseases control and anti-microbial resistance. Overall, China is now the EU's 2nd trading partner behind the United States and the EU is China's biggest trading partner. It is therefore in our mutual interest to preserve and nurture our commercial bonds, in full compliance with our respective legislations.

I have used my stay as an opportunity to have an exchange with the Chinese authorities on the European ban on animal testing for cosmetics, which applies fully since 11 March 2013. The provisions apply equally to products imported into the EU from China.

With this ban, Europe positions itself as the strictest cosmetic market in the world in favour of animal welfare. In addition, we also pave the way for alternative methods to be developed and eventually replace animal testing in the field of cosmetics.

I have encouraged the Chinese authorities to avoid unnecessary testing for cosmetics. There are many areas where animal testing can be replaced, for example, where the proof of safety can be based on ingredients. In this case, the respect of animals as well as the costs of animal tests speak in favour of not doing them.

I see first signs of acceptance of alternative methods in China which I welcome very much. Acceptance of validated alternative methods, starting with those that are OECD accepted, is clearly key to limit animal testing for cosmetics internationally.

I invited the Chinese authorities to work in closer cooperation with the EU Joint Research Centre in the area of alternative methods. Here we have already had first promising contacts. In the same vein, I have also welcomed China's participation as an observer at the next meeting of the International Cooperation on Cosmetics Regulation, aiming for acceptance of validated alternative methods at international level.

Working to keep dangerous food off the shelves

Most people take it for granted that the food that arrives on our plates is safe to eat, but how many of us actually think about what goes into making it safe? The EU’s from farm to fork policy exists for that very reason. The EU works hard to set the highest food safety standards and works together with national authorities who carry out controls to make sure those standards are respected: zero risk does not exist.

The EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed (RASFF) is one such example. It allows a national authority in one EU country to swiftly inform other EU countries when an emerging health threat has been identified. So when things go wrong, we coordinate to make sure that the unsafe products are removed from the market without delay.

Vital communication is taking place on a daily basis through RASFF, in order to protect European consumers. It is a perfect example of a Europe in which the sum is so much bigger – and better – than the parts.

The system in place today is working well. However, there is always room for improvement. RASFF has historically been a platform to exchange information on food safety issues. However, both the Czech methanol and the horsemeat scandal have shown that it can also be used for European partners to exchange information on cases of food fraud. The Commission aims to set up an official and permanent procedure for the rapid exchange of information and alerts in cases which may constitute food fraud.

For more information on RASFF:

I wish every day could be "No Tobacco Day"

I wish every day was a "No Tobacco Day" for all our children and teenagers, who, sadly, are smoking away their health and their future.

Youth is a time of discovery and experimentation marked by the urge to do like our peers; a time when we can pick up habits which are hard to shake off, in particular if they involve a highly addictive substance such as nicotine.

In the European Union, 70% of smokers start before the age of 18. As you read this, many children across Europe take their first step towards smoking, an addiction that kills prematurely 700,000 people across the EU every year.

The time has come to rule out increasingly flavoured and attractive tobacco products targeted at the very young. Tobacco products should not look like toys or cosmetics, or taste like vanilla or chocolate. Tobacco products should look and taste like tobacco products and Europe needs solid legislation to ensure this.

This is why, last year, the Commission put forward a proposal to beef up EU tobacco products legislation. The measures we proposed to revise the Tobacco products Directive included prohibiting all heavily flavoured tobacco products and putting large warnings on each package explaining what tobacco does to your health. By making tobacco products less attractive, my aim is to discourage young people from "experimenting" with tobacco products.

On the occasion of World No Tobacco Day, I am delighted to note wide-ranging support from citizens, the health community and politicians for this proposal. I am aware there is a lively debate on this issue, various positions are being expressed, and many voices - both in the Parliament and in the Council - are pushing for the Directive to go even further than the Commission proposed.

I am particularly pleased to see the very high level of ambition in several Member States in this regard. I now count on Members of the European Parliament and on Europe's Health Ministers to reach an agreement to get the new Tobacco Products Directive adopted soon.

This piece of legislation can make a difference for our young people today and for generations to come. This is why I very much hope that, by next year's World No Tobacco day, Europe will have a new Tobacco Products Directive.

eHealth – how technology can improve your health

As we age, our health gradually deteriorates. We become more likely to visit the doctor or go to hospital for regular check-ups and medical treatment. Or we may need rare medical expertise which is not available in the region or country we live in.

For patients, the distance and the time spent on the road, in a waiting room or in a hospital bed, can, over time, become a source of constraint and discomfort. For national authorities, high rates of sometimes unnecessary medical interventions and hospital bed occupancy mean heavy healthcare costs.

This is where eHealth steps in, an approach based on the use of information and communication technologies to deliver adequate medical services to patients.

eHealth is progressively entering our homes. Mobile phones and computers, combined with monitoring devices, enable us to check various health parameters from home and obtain professional advice when needed. eHealth also provides doctors and hospitals with access to medical files and enables them to monitor more patients, more efficiently, in real time. It facilitates earlier - and more accurate – diagnoses. Last but not least, and importantly in the times that we live in, it can reduce medical costs.

This week I attended the eHealth Conference in Dublin where I saw demonstrations of eHealth in practice in Belfast Northern Ireland. For example, I saw patients having dialysis performed from the comfort of their homes, assisted by a nurse, and linked up to the hospital via teleconference rather than travelling three times a week to the hospital; I saw electronic patient records on nurses tablets or ipads, linked up to the hospital's records, which nurses update on each visit to the patient allowing them to monitor patients' progress easily.

The Commission supports the uptake of eHealth at European level through various initiatives including the eHealth Action Plan for Europe which aims to turn the eHealth potential into better healthcare for our citizens. In addition, the e-Health Network under the Directive on patients' rights in cross border healthcare is shaping common voluntary measures to ensure that patients can trust eHealth systems, that systems are inter-operable and that care across-borders is safe and of high quality. I am pleased that the network has agreed this week on a minimum set of data to be incorporated in electronic medical records.

Banking: Cheaper, more transparent and accessible to all

Functioning in our society without a proper current account is a challenge. It is difficult to make or receive payments, shop or simply pay bills. However, 58 million European citizens still have to do without a bank account.

Banks are also not transparent enough. For consumers trying to understand the fees that they pay, switch banks or open a bank account in another Member State there are still a lot of problems to overcome. We have to ensure that consumers can easily understand and compare costs before deciding which bank to go to when they open their account and can easily switch to another bank if they are not satisfied with their choice. We also have to ensure that European consumers, who move cross-border for various reasons including for work, study or retirement, can fully benefit from the Single European market ensuring that they have access to a basic bank account even in Member States they do not reside in permanently.

On 08 May 2013 the Commission adopted a proposal for a directive on the transparency and comparability of payment account fees, payment account switching and access to basic bank accounts. The new rules will make consumers' lives easier and will bolster competition in the retail financial services sector. Businesses that offer consumers better choices and prices will benefit, as much as their new customers. I am therefore confident that this proposal will lead to a win-win situation for both European consumers and businesses.

Thalassaemia - When the body runs out of oxygen

All the vital functions of our body depend on blood for the provision of oxygen. Therefore, anything affecting this life-supporting fluid, affects the whole body. This is exactly what Thalassaemia does.

Today, World Thalassaemia Day, I wish to tell you about this rare genetic form of anaemia and about efforts to overcome this disease.

Because of a shortage of red blood cells caused by Thalassaemia, there is less oxygen reaching organs. People with thalassaemia suffer short breath, jaundice, poor growth, heart and liver problems and even bone deformation. In their struggle for survival, they rely on regular transfusions of red blood cells to counter temporarily the impacts of the illness.

My heart goes out to all these people, and their families, for the difficult medical treatments they regularly undergo and for all the uncertainties they have to cope with every day of their lives.

European and international organisations and research networks, as well as patient groups are at the forefront of the fight against Thalassaemia, giving hope to patients and their families. Awareness-raising campaigns, research, prevention, training programmes for the clinical community and fund-raising campaigns each contribute to the process. I would like to pay tribute in particular to the outstanding commitment and hard work of the Thalassaemia International Federation.

At European level, several networks provide platforms for experts, such as the European Union Committee of Experts on Rare Diseases, the European Network for Rare and Congenital Anaemias and the Electronic Infrastructure for Thalassaemia Research Network.

There is cause for hope. Thanks to improved technology, medical advances, and the work of dedicated organisations, people with Thalassaemia are living longer. I am confident that with the cooperation and commitment of all actors in the field we will continue to improve the life of people suffering from Thalassaemia.

Harmonizing animal transport conditions

Every year, more than 35 million cows, pigs, sheep and other farm animals are shipped across, into or out of the EU. Whether they are being taken to another farm or on their way to slaughter, farm animals move long distances in trucks. The European Union has legislated in favour of improvements in their transport conditions. This includes basic requirements such as providing sufficient water and fitting trucks with insulated roofs.

Rules on animal protection during transport apply equally across the EU. However it has always been clear that more enforcement is necessary. A way of ensuring this is for all Member States to use the same report template to submit their annual conclusions, a measure which the Commission has recently adopted. This will make the data processing of each report easier and will give a clear overview of compliance levels across the EU. This will also help the Commission gain a clearer understanding of those parts of the regulation on animal protection which EU operators find most challenging. This new measure benefits enforcement. It also enables the Commission to support Member States in taking appropriate actions to ensure better protection of animals during transport. The use of the template report will become mandatory as from 2015.

Since 1977, the European Commission has committed to improving and ensuring animal welfare during transport. The situation has improved and as always more remains to be done. Harmonising the way Member States report to the Commission is one more step in the right direction.

Healthcare abroad - a right for all European citizens

That we value health as our most precious asset is a known fact. That we also have a right to good health as championed by the European Charter of Patients' Rights, is perhaps less known.

The charter is unequivocal in placing health as a basic human right. It states that all European citizens are entitled to a high level of human health protection and to high quality services throughout the entire territory of the European Union.

April 18, European Patients' Rights Day, gives us another opportunity to put the spotlight on patients' rights and consider how to promote them best. This year, we turn our attention to patients' right to travel to another European Union country for medical treatment, as enshrined in the directive on Patient's Rights in Cross-Border Healthcare.

Most of us would prefer to be treated at home, close to family members and friends. There are occasions however when we have to leave our comfort zone, for example to have access to specialised treatment.

European patients are free to seek, and have the right to receive safe and high-quality medical care throughout the European Union. In order to make an informed choice, patients must be able to access information on the conditions under which they can receive treatment abroad and be reimbursed at home. Under the directive, national authorities have until October 2013 to set up information desks for patients travelling abroad for treatment.

I very much hope that this piece of European law will help translate patients' rights into reality. Every day should be patients' rights day. A patient's right to go abroad for treatment when necessary. More importantly, a patient's right to access the best possible treatment in their home country.

Listen to your heart

We all have an athlete inside of us, pumping day in day out. But do you know how fit your heart is? An easy way to find out is by having your blood pressure measured on a regular basis, even if you are feeling fine. High blood pressure can often go unnoticed for a long time, until serious damage happens.

On April 7, we celebrate World Health Day which focusses this year on raising awareness about high blood pressure. Also known as hypertension, high blood pressure increases the risk of heart attacks, strokes and even blindness.

So, how do you keep high blood pressure at bay? The answer isin preventive basic actions we all can take

  • Reducing salt intake
  • Eating a balanced diet
  • Drinking moderately
  • Exercising
  • Not smoking and not being exposed to smoke

Prevention clearly pays off. As a result of preventive action, the risk of death due to cardiovascular diseases has declined by 70% in the EU in the last 30 years. The European Commission is actively engaged in helping to prevent cardiovascular diseases.

The Commission supports projects in this area under the Health Programme, such as for example the project European Heart Health Strategy aimed at identifying the most cost effective policies to prevent cardiovascular diseases. EU action to address the major risk factors of heart diseases including initiatives on nutrition, physical activity and tobacco, as well as cooperation with EU Member States on chronic diseases, further contribute to reducing heart diseases in Europe.

So, on World Health Day, let's think about what each of us can do to prevent high blood pressure and its consequences.

Tuberculosis: the fight goes on

Sunday 24 March 2013, is World Tuberculosis Day, an opportunity to highlight key facts about the disease and build momentum on action to eradicate it. Fact number one is that TB can be prevented and treated.

Tuberculosis (TB) is an infectious airborne disease that has been known to human beings for thousands of years. To this day, however, no country in the world has yet been able to eradicate it completely. In 2011, it took its toll on 1.4 million people across the world. TB affects our most vulnerable citizens: the poor, the homeless, the injecting drug users, and people suffering from HIV/AIDS.

The European Commission is committed to supporting Member States' action to control tuberculosis and to coordinate EU level activities, together with the European Centre for Disease Control (ECDC).

Through its Health Programme, the Commission supported the development of the EURO-TB network, to ensure TB surveillance and provide a "one-stop shop" for Member States to report and retrieve data, as well as a consistent overview of the current situation in the EU. A network of European reference laboratories for tuberculosis has also been set up, involving laboratories from all Member States.

The ECDC further provides scientific evidence and technical assistance to Member States, and helps them strengthen TB control and care for all patients at national level.

Through its Research Framework Programme, the Commission further supports the development of new treatments, vaccines, drugs and diagnostic tools against TB.

Finally, at international level, the Commission supports developing countries in their TB control programmes under the European Programme for Action to Confront HIV/AIDS, Malaria and Tuberculosis.

Committed to protecting bees

This is my second personal statement about bees in just a few weeks. Bees play an important role in our environment and the decline of the bee population has been at the centre of on-going debates for quite a while now.

We need all the bees we can get to pollinate crop flowers and secure the production of enough fruit and vegetables. Therefore, protecting bees and promoting the best possible conditions for them to thrive is in our prime interest.

Three chemicals belonging to the family of neonicotinoids are currently drawing the attention of all parties involved in the bee protection debate. These chemicals are found in the dust, pollen and nectar of some bee attractive crops such as maize, cereals, sunflower and oilseed rape. When bees are exposed to them, their survival is put at high risk, as the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) showed in its report published last January. Further to EFSA's conclusions, the Commission put forward a proposal to ban the three chemicals to Member States on 15 March 2013. The results of the vote were inconclusive (no qualified majority was reached), nevertheless a number of Member States supported the proposal.

We have taken note of the Member States' positions but remain firmly committed to driving forward ambitious and proportionate legislative measures to protect bees.

On 19 March 2013, Agriculture Ministers from the EU Member States gathered in Brussels and I announced that the proposal will be discussed and voted on at the Appeal Committee which will take place later this spring.

Consumer Justice Now!

Consumer transactions are part of our every day life. Anything ranging from the purchase of a book to a family holiday requires us to exercise our rights as consumers. Yet when something goes wrong many of us find it hard to exercise these rights, either because we are unaware of what action to take or because our local authorities do not enforce the EU rules as strictly as they should.

Consumers have some basic rights, in particular the right to safety, the right to be informed, the right to choose, to be heard and to obtain redress. With respect to many consumer rights, our Consumer Scoreboard, an EU-wide survey, has found that many markets do not score favourably since they do not respect basic consumer rights. For example we have found that consumers who wish to switch banks and want information about it may experience difficulties. The same survey tells us that markets such as ‘TV subscriptions’, ‘internet provision’ and ‘gambling and lottery’ are doing a better job at promoting consumers' right to choose.

Ensuring that consumer legislation is enforced effectively and consistently all over Europe is our key priority. This was at the centre of our debates and workshops during the EU Consumer Summit which started today and will conclude tomorrow.

Each citizen should know how to use their rights and each company should know that these rights exist and that they are equally enforced throughout the EU Single Market. This is essential to ensure a level playing field in the Single Market, in the area of consumer legislation.

No more animal testing for cosmetics!

I am delighted to announce that, as of today, no cosmetics newly tested on animals can be placed on the European market. I am confident that this news will please many European citizens who have shared with us the view that animals should not suffer for the sake of producing cosmetics. Animal welfare was indeed what prompted our work towards this ban twenty years ago. The process was long, but it has finally come to fruition.

The ban on animal testing raises the question of consumer safety, our top priority. If cosmetic products or their ingredients are not tested on animals anymore, how do consumers make sure that the cosmetics they want to buy will not cause any allergies or other health-related problems?

In Europe, we have taken the lead in developing alternative methods to animal testing. Let us take the example of artificial skin. Instead of testing a cosmetic product or one of its ingredients on an animal (most often mice or rats), European laboratories have managed to develop artificial skin on which the test is conducted according to the same safety standards. There are several other alternative methods already in use. However, we still need to develop more of these methods to cover all potential risks related to the use of cosmetic ingredients and products. As long as such methods do not exist, new products (or their ingredients) that cannot be proved safe will not appear on the shelves.

Europe's mission is to push along research in the field of alternative methods. We have invested heavily so that Europe remains at the forefront in the field of cosmetics, very much in the same way as we are at the forefront when it comes to animal welfare.

Let us celebrate Women!

Today is no ordinary day: it is International Women's Day, an opportunity to pay tribute to women for their hard-won achievements in the economic, political and social spheres; and for their outstanding commitment to society as mothers and carers. Even though the race for gender equality is still on-going women are steadily gaining ground!

Equality is also about health.

My central priority is to promote the same right to a healthy life for all citizens, and it is a challenging undertaking! Biology makes women and men's exposure to illnesses different. This calls for an all-round gender-related approach including health promotion, prevention, early detection and care. Osteoporosis, diabetes, eating disorders and mental health problems such as depression affect women more than men. While women live longer than men, by an average 6 years, they spent a longer part of their lives in poor health.

Breast cancer is still the major cause of death in women; the Commission is currently working on a European accreditation scheme for breast cancer care units, and regularly updates good practice guidelines for screening breast and cervical cancer.

Lung cancer is catching up fast as more women take up smoking earlier in life; I am confident that the Commission's recent proposal to revise the Tobacco products Directive will help by putting an end to candy flavoured and slim cigarettes tailored to attract young girls.

The Commission further champions prevention of cancer through the European partnership for action against cancer and is a major fund donor for cancer research.

On the issue of mental health, the Commission fosters exchange of information and best practice through a Joint Action with the Member States on Mental Health launched last month, and under its "European Pact for Mental Health and Well-being".

Gender is a health determinant which we must integrate in all our policies to promote a better understanding and recognition of women and men's respective health needs. And this is exactly what our Health Strategy defends.

Protecting our food chain

The horsemeat scandal is yet another reminder that we must always be vigilant to protect our food chain against fraud. Thus far the results of actions taken over the past days do not indicate a safety or public health risk. Nevertheless, those of us entrusted with safeguarding consumer confidence in the food chain can never afford to be complacent. It is our job to make sure that the food on offer in the internal market is safe and that consumers have reliable information that is useful and necessary in making their choice. We can never exclude the possibility of fraud but we can discourage it effectively by maintaining our traceability and monitoring systems.

Within a few hours after the first alert it was possible, thanks to our effective, back-to-back food traceability system, to identify all the operators concerned in a long and complex chain of production and distribution. The culprits were exposed in a matter of days and will face prosecution for crime and liability for damages.

Our system of alerts allows for the immediate recall across Europe of any food found in any Member State that is not up to the required standard. We are world leaders when it comes to ensuring that, from farm to fork, our food is of the highest quality.

Our reaction in coordinating action across Europe has been swift. We launched a plan in cooperation with Member States to carry out controls of the foods destined for the final consumer and marketed as containing beef. The purpose is to check whether they contain traces of horsemeat. The plan also includes detecting possible residues of phenylbutazone, an anti-inflammatory drug which should not be in the food chain. We expect to be able to publish the results of this first check-up on April 15.

Our discussions with the Member States and the European Parliament will continue in the weeks ahead and I look forward to informed discussion on how we can restore and reinforce consumer confidence in our food chain.

Three in four children with cancer can be cured

International Childhood Cancer Day (15/02/2013)

Today, on Childhood Cancer Day, I wish to pay tribute to all those children who suffer from this terrible disease and their parents, from here in Athens where I am on an official visit.

Like all parents, we do what is best for our children's health and we make sure they come to no harm. Just as we teach them to brush their teeth twice a day, just as we remind them to look both ways before crossing a street, we also need to watch for early signs of cancer in our children. Yes, as daunting a thought as it is to all parents, one child in 330 will face cancer, and three in four children in the EU will be cured at the end of a long and painful journey.

In Greece, several NGO's offer medical, psychological and social support to these children and their families. They also raise awareness about childhood cancer and the importance of cancer prevention, a theme which the European Commission lists as a top priority in the fight against cancer.

These NGO's in Greece are at the forefront of the fight against cancer. Floga, the Greek word for "flame", is a beacon that burns for all cancer-affected families. Founded by parents whose children suffer from cancer, all its work is done on a voluntary basis. Another NGO Elpida has created the first Oncology Hospital for Children in Greece, which was inaugurated in 2010. Finally, the NGO Storgi built and equipped a unique Hematological Center in Thessaloniki.

The stories of these NGO's are inspiring. It is quite extraordinary that their work is either voluntary or funded mostly or totally by membership fees, fund-raising events and citizens' donations only.

That is why I want to praise the Greek citizens, parents and NGO members for their generosity, their strength and their self-determination in building a stronger and healthier society. Over the years and in spite of the difficult economic times Greece is going through, the Greek people show us that solidarity can pave the way for a brighter future.

Bee Health – our common concern

Bees are 100-million-year old creatures, which our prehistoric ancestors quickly learned to value for their precious honey, as we still do today. However, there is more to bees than honey production!

Bees are the guardians of plant reproduction and biodiversity. They are indispensable and irreplaceable pollinators of many plants producing fruits and vegetables. Pears, coconut, strawberries, cucumbers, almonds, cauliflowers, sprouts, apples, soya-beans are just a few examples of the food we eat, which would not exist without bees.

Did you know that a third of the global farm output depends mainly on bees?

Malta, my homeland, used to be called "Melita", after the Latin word for "honey". Malta was renowned for its production of fine honey and bees were revered for their widespread contribution to mankind.

Unfortunately, in recent years, the scientific community and bee keepers have raised the alarm over the increasing mortality of bees, in the EU and beyond. Studies indicate that the phenomenon is most probably linked to multifactorial causes such as invasive species and environmental changes, including the use of pesticides in agriculture, climate change and poor dietary conditions due to spreading monoculture.

At European level, we have focused already for some years on the impact pesticides called "Neonicotinoids" have on bee colonies:

Already in 2010, the Commission took legal measures and reinforced the conditions for the placing on the market and use of these substances mostly used in seed treatment.

In spring 2012, new scientific evidence on the sub-lethal effects of neonicotinoids on bees was published. Following the new scientific information, the Commission requested the European Food Safety Agency, EFSA, to assess this new information and to review the risk assessment of neonicotinoids as regards their impact on bees.

On 16 January 2013, EFSA published the conclusions on 3 neonicotinoids and in short, identified high acute risks for bees as regards the exposure to dust in several crops as maize, cereals, and sunflower, to residue in pollen and nectar in crops like oilseed rape and sunflower and to guttation in maize.

Given the risks identified by EFSA, it is my belief that it is now necessary to take regulatory actions. Therefore a first discussion with Member States' experts took place on 31 Jan. The Commission proposed an ambitious but proportionate measure in order to mitigate the risk posed by these substances to bees.

In the face of the concerns raised about the risk of such substances it is our duty to act.

Animal welfare is everybody’s business

More and more people today live in a city. Most will rarely, if ever, get a chance to visit a farm, pick their own fruit and vegetables or wake up in the morning to the sound of a cock crowing. The precious bond between human beings and nature has been stretched so much that children have no idea where our food comes from. "Do carrots grow on trees?" they wonder. "Where do sausages come from?" …

Effortless access to processed and packaged meat in our grocery stores may easily render us oblivious to the fate of slaughtered animals. Few of us have ever visited an abattoir. The fact remains however, that for us to have the nicely packaged meat in our supermarkets, 360 million pigs, sheep, goats and cattle, as well as several billion poultry are killed every year in slaughterhouses across Europe.

It is therefore for us to guarantee that slaughter conditions are the most humane possible and that animals are spared unnecessary suffering.

From 1st of January 2013, a new EC regulation introduces a series of stricter requirements for the welfare of animals at slaughterhouses. These include (i) the appointment of an animal welfare officer by slaughterhouses, (ii) a certificate of competence for all personnel, (iii) compulsory monitoring of loss of consciousness when the animal is stunned, (iv) regular monitoring of stunning techniques and equipment, (v) obligation for all EU slaughterhouses to follow standardized procedures.

I am confident that the enforcement of this new piece of legislation is another step in achieving humane treatment of sentient beings at the time of slaughter. This is not only in the interest of the animal but also in that of consumers who care about the food they eat, and in that of all businesses that will be on a level playing field. Animal welfare is indeed everybody's business.

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