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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection : A Future in Food - Ingredients for Success, Food Industry Information Day, Dublin, 31 May 2001

First of all let me thank Joe Walsh, T.D., Minister for Agriculture, Food and Rural Development, for inviting me and my colleague Franz Fischler here this morning to say "cupla focail" to you on such an important occasion.

On Joe's behalf, and my own, may I join with you in welcoming Franz to Dublin to mark the occasion of the launch of Ireland's Food Quality Strategy as part of the National Development Plan. We both work closely together in the Commission to further the interests of European agriculture and food production. In particular, Ireland's vital interest in both primary production and processed food is never far from centre stage. Indeed, if the Treaty of Nice allowed it, I am sure that Franz would be made an honorary Irish farmer, such is his deep understanding of Irish agri food production!

We have both launched a major European initiative. That is, a wide- ranging debate on food quality, food safety and food production.

Why have we done this? Why should we bother? Perhaps we should leave market forces alone to do the job for us? And what would happen if we did? Indeed, would the people of the European Union be better off if we did butt out? Or, indeed, would they be much worse off?

The answers to these questions are obvious, as I know they are to Franz too.

It is only both of us, at European Commission level, who can pull all the strands of this diverse debate together. We are here to defend and improve the European agri-model. But we are also in the business of assisting in its reform to deliver to all our people what they want. Consumers who want high quality products at affordable prices, citizens who want environmentally friendly farming, supporting those farmers who truly wish to stay on the land and exporters who desire competitive world prices.

These may sound like competing demands. And of course they are. But let me say one thing. If modern farming and agri-production is demand led - the consumer is king or queen - then we are on the road to exactly what the European Commission wants. An agricultural model and food production model that is sustainable - economically, socially and environmentally.

Franz and I have spoken about this approach on many occasions and we are in complete agreement on this, what I might call, new way. But this is not a panacea for everything.

There is often the impression that farmers have it good, that they are ahead of the pack, benefiting from a massive subsidy regime. It is true that some farmers have done very well for themselves. And I applaud those who have done so. They have not only done a service to themselves, they have done a favour to the European Union. But let us remember that most farmers in the European Union, Ireland being in particular case in part, are small farmers.

Across the European Union, the average size of farms is about 18 hectares ( + 44 acres) - hardly ranching. They don't benefit from a 39 hour working week, let alone a 35 hour working week. It is a dawn to dusk operation. With an increasing number of part-time farmers, the innate attraction of the land is diminishing.

As someone who was brought up in a small rural community, I understand that very well. Franz Fischler from a rural background in another small Member State (Austria) also understands that better than most. And I am glad to say that concerns in the European Union on this issue are developing.

Nevertheless, we are seeking the best possible means to support the European agricultural model and European agri-production towards a sustainable way forward within the European Union and on the world stage.

In this context, let me put my consumer hat on. And, in case anyone thinks otherwise, permit me to say that both Franz and I wear the same consumer hat, the same consumer jersey, the same consumer shorts.

Put simply, if the consumer doesn't want to buy, then the consumer won't. Simple as that.

And that goes for the consumer in Dublin or Berlin or Vienna. Or consumers in markets outside the European Union.

The wide-ranging debate that Franz and I are promoting right across the Member States is multi-faceted. We are posing a number of questions wherever we go. These include :

- What is expected from a modern agricultural production sector and how can EU policy assist?

- What makes the agricultural sector different from any other industry?

- Should a European agricultural model be more diversified?

- How can we enhance sustainability in agriculture economically, environmentally and socially?

- How can a world competitive agricultural sector provide for the production of high quality food?

- What are the dimensions of quality food produce and how does quality relate to price?

- Does the food-retailing sector satisfy consumer demand for safe, quality food?

Clearly I am not expecting answers to these questions here today. But I would like participants to reflect on these issues and let us have your considered reflections as quickly as possible.

But it is not just actors in the food chain we need to hear from. We need to hear what society expects and needs. Increasing concerns are being expressed about, for example, animal welfare issues, whether related to facilities at production level or in transport. Concerns are also expressed about the continued use of antibiotics for purposes other than for veterinary reasons. In this regard, let me re-iterate my commitment to phasing out the use of antibiotics in animal feed. Reliance on more "natural" methods of production is also an increasing objective of many. And, of course, there are the legitimate demands for safe food.

I sincerely hope that with the ideas that Franz will now outline, you will gain insights into the Commission's thinking on the future shape of farming and other agri-food support measures. The focus will be increasingly on better rewards for better production and for better quality. This is something that Ireland is particularly well placed to benefit from. I feel sure that, with Ireland's very positive reputation in this area, the Irish food-producing sector can start to offer European consumers the high quality produce they are seeking into the future.

I know that people in the food industry represented here this morning are concerned about the vital issues of quality, safety and production that the European Commission is putting firmly on the agenda. I believe that the whole objective of the strategy being launched today is upgrade the processing sector to the highest possible standards of safety and quality. I applaud your initiative and wish you every success in its implementation.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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