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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

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 2001

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 these subjects.

So far in my term as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, my agenda has been dominated, quite rightly, by food safety considerations.

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 2002.

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 determination.

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 exacting standards.

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 quality?

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 label allergens.

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' ordinary needs.

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 labelling.

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 careful consideration.

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 way.

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 question.

Another area that is exercising increasing attention concerns the labelling of food containing derivatives of Genetically Modified Organisms.

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 purchasing.

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 individual choice.

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 through labelling.

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 development.

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 case.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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