Speech by David
Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Protection, Labelling ingredient of food quality, Round
Table on Food and Agriculture, Brussels, 26 July
At the outset, allow me to express my
appreciation to the participants in today's Round Table
here in Brussels. I know that you all have very busy
schedules, but your willing engagement in this Round Table
is testimony to how importantly you too view the issues of
food quality, safety and production.
We, that is Franz Fischler and I, have
embarked on this exercise due to the unprecedented demand
there is from our citizens for more debate and action on
So far in my term as Commissioner for
Health and Consumer Protection, my agenda has been
dominated, quite rightly, by food safety
One only has to recall, here in Belgium,
the impact of the dioxin crisis two years ago. Combined
with a number of other crises and scandals, consumer
confidence was badly shaken.
Against this background and shortly into
our mandate, this Commission published our White Paper on
Food Safety. This was our blueprint for concrete action on
food safety over the coming years.
It included our ideas for the
establishment of a European Food Authority. Following an
extensive consultation, we adopted our proposals for
legislation for the creation of the Authority. These have
made significant progress in the European Parliament and in
the Council of Ministers with the mandate from the Heads of
State and Government to have the new body up and running
from the beginning of next year.
I am pleased that we are on track to
achieve this mandate. I hope that the Parliament and the
Council can continue the momentum to have the legislation
finalised by December of this year so that the Authority
can be up and running as quickly as possible in
In this regard, I would like already to
congratulate the Belgian Presidency for their intention to
pursue the adoption of this Regulation urgently and with
But while my agenda has been heavily
charged with safety issues - looking to the future with the
Authority, or looking after the present with new
legislation to cope with the BSE crisis - I have also
commenced to look at wider issues of quality and production
in the food chain.
As a public authority operating at the
European level, the Commission has key responsibilities for
ensuring that the systems of public health protection in
respect of assuring safe food are up to the highest
possible standards achievable.
But our consumers are increasingly
concerned with perhaps less tangible issues than safety.
They expect safe food.
They demand that food processors deliver
on this. And they expect public authorities, at local,
regional, national and European level to make sure that the
inspection and audit of safety systems are carried out to
Consumers are now as much, or more,
concerned with quality, taste, appearance, nutritional
value and ethical values in regard to food. They demand
more and more variety. They expect food to be produced and
processed in accordance with good farming practices, with
greater respect for the environment and for the welfare of
food producing animals.
Modern methods of production of food
have brought new worries to the eyes of consumers. In the
recent Foot and Mouth Disease crisis, people witnessed the
very fast spread of the disease across large distances.
While no threat to public health was involved, consumers
began to wonder about the need for such large-scale
transport of animals.
Many were made aware for the first time
that this was a fact of the evolution of our food
production system. People are now questioning the need for
large-scale transport of animals, not to mention highly
intensive farming practices.
People are also increasingly aware that
the "footprint" of modern agro-food production is very
large in terms of its impact on the environment. They are
asking how more sustainable methods can be developed,
promoted and introduced.
These types of concerns are evidently
developing. But equally, there are segments of the consumer
population who are more concerned about the price they pay
for food than with broader questions.
How are their concerns for cheap food to
be met if qualitative standards are to be driven up at
significant cost? Or is there a trade off between higher
quality standards and retail demand? How can people tell if
one product is better quality then the next? Or, are
consumers dependent on price alone as a determinant of
These are, I believe, crucial questions
and crucial issues for the development of this debate.
These are important issues for producers, distributors and
retailers. But, fundamentally, they are choices for society
as a whole.
That is why, for example, we have posed
the questions :
- 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?
One of the very specific issues that is
emerging from the Round Table process to date concerns the
labelling of foodstuffs.
While a clear articulation of the issue
has not come through yet, what is clear is that this is an
issue that is exercising consumers.
This is a matter that I wish to explore
further over the remainder of this Round Table
consultation. In addition, I have instructed my services to
commence a major review our labelling regime.
As one part of that review, I will
shortly present a new Directive on labelling for which I
will seek the agreement of the European Parliament and the
Council of Ministers.
This draft law will, upon adoption, make
it compulsory to list all ingredients of foodstuffs and to
I regard this piece of legislation as
particularly important for consumers. Consumers are
entitled to basic information. Indeed, this entitlement to
information was elevated to a right by virtue of the
provisions of the Amsterdam Treaty.
I am determined to follow through on
this important watershed in terms of the development of
consumer law. This is a very clear example of the European
Commission working concretely in favour of citizens'
Let me outline to you briefly the
contents of this new proposal. Firstly, it will abolish
what is known as the 25% labelling rule.
In effect, this currently means that it
is not obligatory to label the components of compound
ingredients that make up less that 25% of a final food
product. So, under my proposals, all ingredients would have
to be labelled.
I am also ensuring that all known
allergens must be labelled. This is an especially important
public health provision.
The Scientific Committee for Food has
issued an opinion on allergens. It stated that the
incidence of food allergy is such to affect the lives of
very many people, causing conditions from the mild
reaction, to the potentially fatal reaction.
In the light of that scientific opinion,
I am committed to a revised labelling regime that gives
consumers full information about potential allergens. This
will provide for no exceptions. It will extend from
foodstuffs to include alcoholic beverages. Therefore, it
will be necessary to label foodstuffs and alcoholic
beverages, for example red wine, that contain sulphites at
concentrations of at least 10 mg/kg.
I thought it important to sketch out for
you my legislative intentions in this regard as a
background to the increasing demands for more
In fact, as I have indicated, these
demands for more information about food are becoming
increasingly evident in this Round Table process.
In particular, the large number of
questions on labelling and related issues that were raised
in the internet chat we participated in on 6
th June last clearly demonstrated the keen
interest in this subject.
While we have already quite a
comprehensive labelling regime, which I intend to expand by
way of the new labelling Directive I have just spoken of,
consumers are also looking for more and more information
about the food they are eating. How this could be achieved,
in terms of revised labelling legislation, will need
One way of achieving consumers' desires
may not be through a radical overhaul of the labelling
legislation, although we may have to contemplate this.
However, if this is not required, perhaps we need to
consider new means of informing consumers in an impartial
Many leading food producers already make
available, through their web sites and otherwise,
significant amounts of additional information than is
legally required to be placed on product labels.
Perhaps we need to encourage more of
this? And encourage more and more enterprises to go down
this road to satisfy consumer demand? I would appreciate
your thoughts on this matter. In any event, I intend to
have discussions with the Member States on this
Another area that is exercising
increasing attention concerns the labelling of food
containing derivatives of Genetically Modified
More and more consumers are looking for
this information to be labelled in order to be in a
position to make more informed choices about what they are
Very clearly, the subject of GMOs is
highly controversial and provokes intense (and sometimes
not very constructive) debate. My approach to this debate
is one of pragmatism, based on considerations of science
and consumer choice.
In terms of science, the relevant
Scientific Committees have stated that for the GM products
they have evaluated, these present no health concern for
human consumption. On the other hand, consumers are calling
for clear and unequivocal labelling to facilitate
Yesterday, the Commission had a lengthy
discussion on a new regulatory package on GMOs.
Our approach to a new legislative regime
for GMOs will be based on science. On this basis, consumers
can be assured that such foods will receive a rigorous
safety assessment at the European level before being placed
on the market. In addition, they can be assured that they
will receive information about their genetic modification
Given the keen interest in this topic, I
would be keen to hear your views on these issues.
I am very pleased that there is a real
and genuine debate underway across Europe about the extent
to which our systems of agricultural production and food
production contribute to, or mitigate against, higher
quality foodstuffs on consumers plates. There is a welcome
realisation that quantity has, in the past, been given
undue weight by comparison with quality.
Reforms are underway to correct this
imbalance. In our recent policy decisions on sustainable
development, the Commission decided that the mid-term
review of the Common Agricultural Policy next year should
reward quality rather than quantity. It could do this, for
example, by encouraging the organic sector and other
environmentally-friendly farming methods and a further
shift in support from market supports towards rural
This debate on food quality, safety and
production that Franz and I are promoting will gather pace
over the next year or so. No doubt we will hear loudly from
producer interests. But centre stage must be consumer
interests. The interests of consumers must be placed first.
Modern agro-food producers can only succeed if that is the
FOOD SAFETY |
DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH
& CONSUMER PROTECTION"