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Health and Consumer Protection

Library - Speeches - Commissioner Byrne

Speech by Mr D. Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection to the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD), Washington D.C., 10.02.2000 - Theme of the Opening Plenary Session: "How Governments can meet Consumer Concerns on the Trade Agenda"

Ladies and gentlemen

I am very pleased to have been invited to address you today.

First, may I introduce myself to our American friends: I have been in office as European Commissioner since last September. As a European Commissioner, my responsibilities are health and consumer protection, including food safety.

The theme of this plenary session is "how governments can meet consumer concerns on the trade agenda". Well, I would say that such a straight question deserves a straight answer. First, Governments should listen not only to industry, they should also listen to those for whom industry produces, the consumers. This is what I shall do here today.

I would also like to say that, in the run up to Seattle, the Commission asked the European Consumer Committee, which is its Advisory Body for Consumer Affairs, to give its opinion on the Commission’s position paper for the coming negotiations. The Commission also included a number of Non Governmental Organisations in its official delegation to the Ministerial Conference, among them a representative from the consumer side. And, in Seattle, Commissioners Lamy, Fischler and myself were available to provide the Consumer Organisations who were there with the necessary information that would allow them to form their own opinions. As for the future, I am committed to continuing with consumer dialogue and participation in the post Seattle situation.

The European Commission, which I am representing here, wants to see consumer concerns taken into account in various policy areas. The latest Treaty of the European Union, the Amsterdam Treaty, put in writing that a high level of consumer protection should be integrated into all EU policies. So this is a quasi-constitutional obligation. This approach should be reflected in international trade as well.

I hope that we can learn one lesson from Seattle:the need to explain policy objectives, the need to listen to various voices, the need to address citizens concerns. This is true at all levels, the country level, the European level and at the level of the WTO itself. I am absolutely convinced that trade and consumer confidence go hand in hand.

This is particularly true in the area of agricultural and food products. The Commission recently took two important decisions: three weeks ago it adopted the White Paper on Food Safety and last week, it adopted a communication on the Precautionary Principle.

Considering that these are topical and important subjects, I would like to develop them from the viewpoint of trade and the consumer.

One of the main preoccupations for consumers is food safety. The confidence of consumers in Europe has been badly shaken over the past months and years by a succession of crises – cows infected with BSE or poultry poisoned by dioxin are the best known. There have been no winners in this process. In this situation, we are having to rethink our whole approach to food safety.

I would like to outline some of the principles which we in the European Commission consider absolutely basic to this issue of food safety and trade.

First, food safety is a top priority:

- Consumers want, and have the right, to be told the whole truth and nothing but the truth about their food.

- Food policy must have food safety as its primary objective, and neither producers’ interests nor trade concerns can be allowed to jeopardise that objective.

- Our approach should be based on science.

One of my priorities is to restore confidence in food safety and its underpinning security system in the EU. A couple of weeks ago I therefore proposed to the Commission to set up an independent food authority. This will not be an exact replica of the FDA but I hope it will quickly acquire a similar standing and authority.

This authority’s main priority will be to provide us in Europe with independent scientific advice in relation to all safety-related issues. We will strive to employ independent scientists of the highest quality. The institution will work transparently. It will provide information to consumers and engage in a dialogue with us as policy-makers.

Regulators have to make their decisions on the best scientific advice available but they must retain the right and the responsibility to make final decisions, as they are accountable for their actions to the citizens. Risk management has to be distinct from risk assessment which is undertaken by the scientists. There is no zero risk, but we can minimise the risks through risk management and by using – if necessary – the precautionary principle.

Secondly, when it comes to international trade, the WTO work should not only be about liberalisation but also about establishing rules for trade in goods and services which will ensure protection for consumers. We have a legally binding WTO Agreement on the application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, to which we all signed up. That SPS Agreement, which has now been clarified in a number of respects by the Appellate Body under the Dispute Settlement Understanding in the beef hormone, and other SPS cases, sets out the conditions under which sanitary and phytosanitary measures which impact on international trade can be taken.

In particular, it is now absolutely clear that WTO Members are free to choose the highest level of health protection that they deem necessary, and take the measures, including trade measures, necessary to ensure that the chosen level of protection is achieved, provided a number of conditions are met.

The most important condition is that measures should be based on scientific principles and that there should be sufficient scientific evidence to warrant the measure. There is of course a very important exception to that last requirement, which is that Members can take provisional measures where there is pertinent but insufficient information available. This precautionary approach is clearly foreseen in the SPS.

Regarding the Precautionary Principle, the Commission adopted a communication to the Council and the European Parliament last Wednesday 2 February to explain the reasoned, step-by-step process it follows when applying it in its management of risk. Considering the importance of the Communication, my Services have seen to it that it be sent to all the members of the TACD. I would welcome your views on it.

As much as anybody else, the Commission wants to avoid the Precautionary Principle or bogus scientific views being used to justify trade barriers. That is why we need not just European but agreed international guidelines.

The danger lies in having a general, open-ended precautionary principle without defining what it means, and in what circumstances it may be used. The challenge we face is to develop together - and with all our WTO partners – a methodology which allows us to apply the principle of precaution.

A set of guidelines should be developed which could, in our view, include the following:

- the implementation of a precautionary measure must start with a scientific evaluation of the available information;

- the measures developed should be proportional, non-discriminatory, and consistent with measures already taken in similar circumstances;

- the measures should be provisional, and should be kept under review until full scientific advice permits a definitive decision.

Work on this issue has already begun in the Codex Alimentarius Committee on General Principles. That work should be accelerated. An international consensus on the role and the application of the precautionary principle would be a major help to avoid trade conflicts regarding different approaches to food safety and reassure consumers in a world where we are increasingly curious of food from other parts of the world.

Thirdly, in order to ensure that Members respect the SPS (and all other) WTO agreements, there is a binding Dispute Settlement Understanding which has been established: the Dispute Settlement Understanding. The Community has repeatedly stressed its commitment to the DSU while pointing out various ways in which it could be improved.

As the second most important agricultural exporter in the world, and the first importer ,we have a major interest in ensuring that the SPS Agreement is respected, and that access to third countries for our products is not restricted on spurious health grounds (and the other way round).

So we are attached to the Dispute Settlement mechanisms as the assurance that the WTO is a rule-based system with legal means to ensure Members’ rights are respected and obligations are met, including in the area of food safety.

Fourthly, the consumer wants to know what he or she is buying. He or she wants to know for instance what is going into the food they are eating. We believe that there is scope under WTO rules to use non-protectionist and non-discriminatory measures, such as mandatory labelling, to offer all consumers their basic rights to make informed choices.

The question of mandatory labelling is not altogether clear in WTO legislation. It could indeed happen that a WTO Member would challenge the right of another Member to insist on labelling to indicate certain characteristics of a product, or certain production processes. The argument has been used that to require labelling for one production process and not for another suggests that the label is a warning, and that to accept labelling is to accept that the process merits a warning. Well, that is certainly one perception. But I would categorise it as the kind of attitude which fuels anti-WTO feeling, anti-trade liberalisation sentiment, and general rejection of trade laws – and indeed of trade legislators!

Transparency begins in the shopping basket, and if the consumer wants to know, the consumer should be told – irrespective of the fact that the product in question poses no health risk. Incidentally, the Amsterdam Treaty explicitly recognises the consumer’s right to information. I must stress that from our point of view, labelling is not the course to follow when there is an established health risk, although tobacco is a clear exception. Another example where there should be transparency is the methodology used to assess risks and the way it is managed.

It must be clearly accepted by all Members of the WTO that there is scope under WTO rules to use non-protectionist measures such as mandatory labelling to offer all consumers their basic right to make informed choices. This is why another of our objectives is to consider with our trade partners to what extent multilateral guidelines on labelling would be appropriate.

To sum up, I am convinced that in the future a balance must be struck between

- the interests of trade liberalisation and the avoidance of unilateralism or trade protectionism, and

- legitimate objectives such as health, environment and consumer protection.

I should also like to emphasise a very important message – trade needs consumer confidence to prosper.

Finally, I want to underline the European Union’s full support for the TACD process. We think the results so far are positive. The TACD does influence policymakers. I can not promise to follow and implement everything you recommend. But we will look seriously at all your proposals and give you a reasoned response.

May I wish you every success with this third TACD meeting. I look forward to hearing the results of your work.

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