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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

EP Hearing "Quality production: the new challenge of the CAP", EP Agriculture Committee, Brussels, 20 June 2001 - Statement by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

I am delighted to have the opportunity this afternoon to address this important public hearing on such a topical subject.

As the Commissioner responsible for Health and Consumer Protection I am looking forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts on the vital task we all have ahead of us in ensuring both safety and quality of the European Food Supply Chain.

May I thank Mr. Graefe zu Baringdorf, as Chairman of the Parliament's Committee on Agriculture and Rural Development, for his initiative in organising this hearing. I am also grateful for the participation of Ms. Jackson, Chairman of the Parliament's Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy. And I believe that it is important that we will also hear, during this opening session, from the current President of the Agriculture Council, Ms Winberg.

This opening line up, representing the three legislative institutions of the Community, should send out a very strong message to the public at large that we are all working together towards creating the right conditions for the generation of consumer confidence in safe, quality foodstuffs.

As representatives of European citizens, we know better than anybody else that the public's demands and expectations as regards food safety have never been higher. And confidence is indeed very fragile. 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 recent Foot and Mouth Disease crisis, although not a public health issue, has again brought into sharp relief the need for co-ordinated and concerted action to address the animal health and economic issues involved.

It is common sense that every single citizen has a part to play in the drive towards higher food safety standards and better production methods, thereby ensuring higher quality foodstuffs.

But public authorities have a special role to play in this evolving scenario by raising the standard of debate and indeed playing leading roles in the debate.

"Food Quality" is an issue that has concerned 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 quality food.

Indeed, 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 chain are constantly changing. We are eating 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, and as much as I think that general safety rules should be laid out to ensure the same protection and confidence for consumers throughout Europe, I believe that we must also respect traditional methods of food production. Always ensuring, of course, that such traditional methods do not compromise essential food safety standards.

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

It is for all those reasons that I have taken the initiative, together with my colleague Commissioner Franz Fischler, to start a broad debate on food quality, safety and production. Indeed we need to develop common understandings of the issues that people have concerns about and common understandings of how policy responses can be shaped.

We commenced this food quality debate by way of a high level Round Table here in Brussels with leading food producers, retailers, consumer experts and scientists. We are in the process of following this up with similar round tables in the Member States.

We have also reached out directly to our citizens in an internet-chat on June 6 th, focused specifically on food quality and production issues. This generated very significant interest, which confirms the importance of continuing the dialogue.

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 animal 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 stages 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 gives consumers maximum opportunity for individual 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 Commission has made an important contribution to the debate on sustainable development in our recent Communication - "A Sustainable Europe for a Better World: A European Union Strategy for Sustainable Development". This was our contribution on this topic to last weekend's European Council at Gothenburg.

In that document we identified that all policies must have sustainable development as their core concern. In particular, we said that the forthcoming reviews of Common Policies must look at how they can contribute more positively to sustainable development.

Specifically, we indicated that the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy next year should reward quality rather than quantity by, for example, encouraging the organic sector and other environmentally-friendly farming methods and a further shift of resources from market support to rural development.

In line with the holistic nature of this Communication we also confirmed that threats to food safety are of increasing concern. Accordingly, among our headline objectives we committed to making food safety and quality the objective of all players in the food chain.

We would achieve this objective by improving consumer information and awareness, including through education, and clear labelling of food. A key priority will be the creation of the European Food Authority in 2002.

I am pleased that the European Council last weekend endorsed our general approach to sustainable development and, in particular, in the food arena.

It is incumbent on us all to bring this strategy forward. For my part, I will continue to pursue assiduously, the Food Safety Action Plan of the Commission's White Paper on Food Safety. We will also pilot the European Food Authority into being by the beginning of next year.

Since becoming European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, I have been struck by the need to consult and listen to peoples' concerns. It is only through such a consultation and listening process, can we hope to formulate the best policies in the interests of all our citizens.

The results of this Public Hearing, and the Round Table process being undertaken by Franz Fischler and myself, will be taken fully into account in the development of policy towards a Sustainable European Food Model, in the mid-term review of Agenda 2000, and in the reform of the Common Agricultural Policy post 2006.

I take the point that the issues involved here are complex and multi-faceted, but that makes this kind of public hearing all the more interesting and potentially rewarding.

I thank you for your attention and look forward to participating in the discussion later.

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

 
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