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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection : Food Safety, Food Quality – Challenges for the European Union - Bund für Lebensmittelrecht und Lebensmittelkunde und Bundesvereinigung der Deutschen Ernährungsindustrie, Berlin, 17 May 2001

I am delighted to have the opportunity this afternoon to address this important Food Industry Day on the European challenges for food safety and quality. As the Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer protection I am looking forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts on the very important task we all have ahead of us in ensuring the safest level of European Food Supply.

As industry representatives, you know better than anybody else does that consumer confidence and the confidence of trading partners is key to the success of the food industry in Europe and in the global market place.

However, many of the concerns of our fellow citizens arise because we have had a number of high profile food safety crises over recent years. The BSE crisis highlighted, in particular, that food safety issues transcend borders and need Community-wide public health responses.

Indeed the current Foot and Mouth Disease crisis, even though it is not a public health issue, again brings into sharp relief the need for co-ordinated and concerted action to address the animal health and the economic issues involved.

Every single citizen has a role to play in the drive towards higher food safety standards, better production methods, thereby ensuring higher quality foodstuffs (an issue on which I’ll come back later on).

Indeed, these unprecedented waves of public concern have highlighted the need for all those involved in producing, manufacturing or supplying food, on the one hand, and the official bodies responsible for regulating and controlling food safety standards on the other, to play their part in ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.

A safe food chain from farm to fork, correctly regulated and effectively controlled is the road to building this confidence. Food businesses have their role to play in this regard, as ultimately it is the responsibility of every business to ensure the safety of the foods they produce, manufacture or sell.

The Commission is committed to ensuring that European consumers have access to the safest food supply in the world. I am personally determined to establish a comprehensive legal framework with effective and open organisational structures so that we can rebuild the fragile confidence in our food supply. Food safety has to be the driving force in the regulation of the food supply. In addition our legislation must be modern and flexible enough to regulate a highly technologically advanced European food industry while at the same time provide sufficient safeguards in smaller more traditional food businesses. Not only do we have to consider the food law itself but also we have to ensure that our procedures are efficient.

For example where we have approval mechanisms for products, the scientific assessments must be carried out thoroughly and comprehensively, and without undue delay.

Where food safety is assured we must not needlessly block industrial innovation, through over bureaucratic requirements.

You will have seen our thoughts on how we deliver our objectives in the White Paper on Food Safety, which we published last year. We received many positive comments on this paper, including those of BLL, that we have now been integrated into our overall approach.

Originally heralded in the White Paper, the Commission’s proposal for a Regulation laying down the general principles and requirements of food law and establishing the European Food Authority is the cornerstone in our overall strategy. This proposal is now the subject of scrutiny in the European Parliament and in the Council. I am pleased to inform you that these institutions have afforded the proposal the highest priority. Great progress is being made and I am increasingly optimistic that the Council will be able to reach political agreement on this vital piece of legislation before the end of June. This is absolutely critical if we are all to live up to my own desire and that of the Heads of State and Government to have the Food Authority up and running from early next year as requested by the European Council in Stockholm last March.

Rather than go into the detail, what I would like to do is illustrate some of the major concerns and reasoning in putting forward such a far-reaching proposal, which the Commission adopted on 8 November 2000.

Firstly, we see the need to include within a single Regulation, the principles of food law, the basic necessity for food law to be developed following the principles of risk analysis and to provide the organisational structures and procedures to deliver this.

The regulation therefore not only establishes the general principles of food law but also proposes the establishment of the European Food Authority which will be responsible for ensuring that the scientific risk assessment part of the overall risk analysis process is carried out to the highest world standards.

We consider that at a moment when Europe decides to establish a Food Authority, this Authority should represent one of the elements of the wider food safety policy, which we, in Europe, want to make more effective, more transparent and more coherent.

Secondly, the proposal establishes the basic principles that food law must provide a high level of health protection and that only safe food may be placed on the market.

Within this principle there are also responsibilities, that is that the primary responsibility for safe food rests with industry, producers and suppliers, and it is the responsibility of the competent authorities in the Member States to ensure that food legislation is complied with.

This is achieved through effective enforcement controls at all points in the chain from farm to table including in animal feed manufacturing establishments.

Thirdly our recent food safety problems have shown the need for comprehensive traceability of food along the food production chain. The proposed regulation will make it mandatory for businesses to have in place systems to trace at least from whom they have purchased foods and to whom they have supplied them.

Fourthly, to increase consistency and legal security, clear definitions are proposed including those for "a foodstuff" and "placing on the market".

In our proposal the precautionary principle is for the first time included in a legislative act regarding food. We are trying here to fix a frame to give some clear definition of what is this precautionary principle. It is a management tool but it should be used within certain well defined limits. In short, the precautionary principle cannot be used as a political expedient or a disguised distortion to trade.

I believe the whole of the system for the development of food law, both the scientific opinions which, in the main, form the basis for proposals and the procedures whereby the Commission develops its proposals, must be as transparent as possible. If the public cannot understand the reasoning behind a proposal then how can we expect them to have confidence in the system making such proposals or the legitimacy of the basis for them?

The only way to face the controversy surrounding many matters relating to food law and particularly in relation to such innovative matters as biotechnology applied to food is to promote an open-minded and balanced dialogue between all stakeholders - scientists, industry, farmers and consumers and by ensuring maximum transparency in the risk/benefit assessments.

Furthermore, we have to accept and respect the consumers' right to have clear information in order to take informed decisions on which products they want to buy. Compromising on food safety is not a way for a farm or a company to reduce costs. It is actually a very dangerous path, not only for consumers, but also for the farm or company itself and for the whole sector involved.

In an industry worth 535 billion Euro annually in the European Union, that is about 15% of total manufacturing output, even a slight dip in confidence can have significant effects. Between the agri-food sector and the farming sector, there are about 10 million employees in Europe. High levels of confidence are necessary to boost job numbers and competitiveness. Confidence and predictability are also essential elements to boost trade.

The public's demands and expectations have never been higher and confidence is very fragile. We have one of the best informed, discerning and sophisticated groups of consumers in the world. My intention is to ensure that they can believe in the rules, administrations and systems we have put in place to guarantee the safety of the European food supply.

To this end, our proposal also establishes the European Food Authority, which will be based on the principles of independence, scientific excellence, transparency and accessibility.

We called it "Authority" because we wanted to underline that this new entity should be "authoritative", should be seen as the European reference in terms of scientific assessment, the European voice that should be heard by all Member States.

The European Food Authority will provide an authoritative body of expertise to the European Food Safety System. It will become the foremost scientific body of expertise on food safety and will be responsible for the scientific opinions on which we base our legislative proposals.

The Authority will have a wide remit and in parallel with the general principles of food law will also cover all scientific matters which may have a direct or indirect effect on the safety of the food supply. It will cover all stages of production and supply whether this is at the level of primary production including assessing the safety of animal feeds, right through to the supply of food to consumers.

The second important task of this Food Authority will be to give advice also on technical issues; such tasks may include in particular the establishment or evaluation of technical criteria, the development of technical guidelines or guides as to good practice. Again, this is a work to be developed in common using existing expertise in Europe.

The third important task of this Food Authority is the collection of data. There is an enormous amount of data in Europe, of all kinds. We in the Commission have not always the resources to compile, to analyse, and to compare in order to have a tool for a better legislation. The objective will be a better exploitation of data, which already exist. By better exploiting the information, the food authority could better identify possible emerging risks, and draw the attention of policy makers before the problem arises.

Finally, the EFA will be a major risk communicator providing information on food safety to the general public, and scientific opinions and risk assessments to those responsible for proposing food law in the European Commission. It will be separate from the European Commission, being a legal entity in its own right, and have its own budget. Our vision is that the Authority will be an automatic first port of call on all questions relating to food safety.

This is a task, which has not always been well understood, because of the fear that by giving away this competence, there will be an independent body with a different message that the one issued by European legislators. To be clear, the Authority will have the mission to communicate in the field of its competence, i.e. in the scientific area. It will try to make European consumers understand what is science and to have more confidence in science. Like for example now, with the BSE crisis, you have all different messages about the risks. We think that by having a strong voice, which will say what is the risk, we can avoid disproportionate reactions, which are at times really exaggerated.

The Authority will have a Director, and a Management Board.

There will also be an Advisory Forum where the Member States’ national agencies or analogous bodies will have a seat. This will be the instrument by which we will ensure that the Authority works in collaboration with national agencies. It will oblige national authorities to work together with the Food Authority.

And finally it will have a Scientific Committee with a co-ordinating role and scientific panels.

This far-reaching proposal is of course the cornerstone of our new food safety policy, but let me now come back to another very important challenge for the EU, that is: Food Quality.

"Food Quality", is one that has preoccupied my colleague Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and myself for some time now. We have come to the conclusion that food safety is an intrinsic part of food quality.

European consumers will settle for no less than safe food – and they are right. But they expect the food that they eat and feed to their children to be more than just safe.

Consumers expect food to meet their nutritional needs, to be wholesome and tasty. They expect to be able to choose amongst a wide variety of foods. They expect their food to be produced and processed in accordance with good farming practices, with greater respect for the environment and for the welfare of animals. And they expect to be informed, in a precise and accurate manner, about the composition, the nutritional value, the durability, the origin, and, in certain cases, the method of production of the food offered to them.

As we enter the 21 st century, the challenges facing the European food supply are constantly changing. We eat a greater variety of foods throughout the year, not only from all over the European Union, but from all around the world. We value the extraordinarily fine food culture of our European nations and we are eager to discover different foods coming from the equally rich food cultures of other continents.

We eat more and more food prepared outside our own homes. We witness – sometimes sceptically - how technology is increasingly being used to make foods safer, more nutritious or more palatable. And we cherish the regional culinary traditions that we have inherited from our parents and grandparents.

It is therefore important that Europe allows all the richness and diversity of foods to be preserved and developed. I am very sensitive to this aspect.

I do not see why we should not be able to meet these various aspirations of European consumers. I do not believe there needs to be a contradiction between our demand for quality products, at affordable prices, and our quest for a high level of food safety. We can reap the benefits of technical progress, improve the protection of our environment, and not give up any of our extraordinary food traditions.

When we look at these three interwoven components of good food, that is safety, quality and nutrition, we can see how they become equally keys to production and consumption.

Taken all this into consideration, I have taken the initiative, together with my colleague Commissioner Franz Fischler, to start a debate on food quality, safety and production.

We kicked off this food quality debate by way of a high level round table with leading food producers, retailers, consumer experts and scientists. We now intend to follow this up with similar round tables in the Member States. We already have two such events programmed for Berlin on June 7 th and for Paris on July 11 th. We will also reach out to our citizens directly in an internet-chat on June 6 th next, focused specifically on food quality and production issues. I look forward to these and others in bringing our debate forward towards shaping common policies for the future.

This is the way I would like to see us move forward in Europe - towards a more sustainable way of producing and consuming food.

Modern food production methods themselves have raised matters of public concern beyond human health and safety in relation to environmental and ethical aspects of agri-food production, including sustainable development, animal health and welfare.

While the European food supply is amongst the safest in the World, we need a greater emphasis on an integrated and comprehensive approach, considering food safety, wholesomeness and quality, in conjunction with economic, environmental and ethical matters at all parts of the production chain. We need to consider a new food production/consumption model, which would be focused less on output and more on meeting consumer expectations for safe, wholesome, nutritious and diversified foods. In other words, food safety and food quality would not be regarded as discrete objectives, but rather as entwined components of a sustainable food production/consumption model.

I am convinced that the key to meeting those ambitions is to take an integrated approach to food production. One that would place a greater emphasis on quality, within an integrated and comprehensive approach to the entire food chain. One that is uncompromising on safety. One that would give consumers the choice. One that would take into account that eating should be a pleasure and should also be wholesome. And that it should be conducive to our overall good health and well being.

The issues involved here are complex and multi-faceted, but that makes this kind of conference all the more interesting and potentially rewarding.

I wish this Food Industry Day every success and I am looking forward to keep working with the food industry, as with other stakeholders in the delicate matter of re-establishing consumer confidence.

I thank you for your attention.

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Speeches Commissioner Byrne
FOOD SAFETY | PUBLIC HEALTH | CONSUMER PROTECTION | DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH & CONSUMER PROTECTION"

 
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