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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Food safety a top priority in the EU

Informal Agricultural Council - Biarritz, 5 September 2000

I would like to again thank the Presidency for this discussion paper. The three key issues it hightlights – "Diversity, Quality, Safety" – must be central to our whole approach towards agriculture and food production.

I would like to congratulate Jean Glavany for confronting the issues head-on. They must be discussed openly. The fact of the matter is that we have to move with the times; with the new concerns of our citizens and with the new challenges to agriculture and food production.

There has already been a lot of progress in re-directing our agricultural systems in new directions. And we should not underestimate the difficulties in changing a system which has evolved over several decades. Several of you present today spent literally years in negotiating the change in direction agreed in the Agenda 2000 package.

And, in the context of my own portfolio of responsibilities, there has been a major new emphasis on food safety. The White Paper on Food Safety and the new Food Safety Authority, on which I hope to present a proposal in the very near future, are only two examples of the fundamental change of direction which is taking place to ensure that food is safe.

However, we must consider whether we need to be even more ambitious. I do not anticipate that there is any real dispute on the need to give priority to the issues raised in the paper. The challenge, instead, is how to do so in an effective, proportionate manner. And, this is a formidable challenge.

I intend to briefly focus on a number of the questions in the discussion paper which impact directly on my responsibilities.

To begin with, we are ideally placed to fundamentally review the Community role in relation to food safety. This is a priority for the Commission. The White Paper on Food Safety sets out a very extensive range of proposals which I consider necessary to ensure that the food is safe – from the farm to the table.

Many of these proposals are already under discussion in the Council and the European Parliament. Proposals on transmissible spongiform encephalopathies (TSEs), on new food hygiene rules, on undesirable substances in feedingstuffs, on official inspections etc. to name but a few. These will be joined in the next few weeks and months by major proposals on animal waste, on zoonoses and, most important of all, on a Food Safety Authority.

The agenda of the Agriculture Council from now to Christmas is heavily dominated by proposals which impact directly on food safety. We – Commission, Council and European Parliament - must seize this opportunity to ensure that these proposals, when finally adopted, address our citizens expectations and concerns.

Let me give you just one example. Question 4 in the discussion paper asks how can Europe better combine high levels of food safety and the specific nature of traditional products or local markets. I am very sensitive to allegations that the EU has damaged local food production and traditional products through the imposition of higher costs and uniform standards in the area of food safety.

Let me be very clear on this issue: I agree 100% with the view that diversity in food and agricultural systems needs to be protected and promoted. Local systems of production and traditional products are fundamental to this diversity.

The Commission’s recent proposals for new food safety hygiene rules, which I presented to the Council at our meeting in July, make very explicit provision for such diversity. The Commission has proposed that the responsibility for adapting the rules to such local situations be left to Member States. You are clearly better placed to judge and find appropriate solutions.

The discussions which will take place over the coming months in the Council and the Parliament on the proposal will ensure that we confront, head-on, the need to find solutions for small scale producers and local production.

Another issue which will confront us over the coming months is the issue of GMOs in food production. In this instance, I share the view, set out in the Presidency paper, that our decisions must be informed by four principles – informed caution, transparency, democracy and harmonisation.

We must also be open to the potential offered by biotechnology. In this respect, it could be a serious mistake to assume that biotech means poor quality. If, for example, GM foods offer the opportunity to reduce the levels of pesticide residues, or improve nutritional qualities, it would be negligent to ignore these advantages. Provided, of course, that they are assessed in a framework which ensures that they are safe to public health and the environment.

The Council will have its opportunity over the coming months to decide policy on a number of key GMO-related issues on the basis of proposals from the Commission. These proposals will introduce or update sectoral legislation on, for example, novel foods and novel feeds, labelling and traceability of GMOs. It is part of a carefully agreed strategy agreed by the Commission in July which is aimed at creating a Community-wide framework to address all the relevant issues.

The Agriculture Council will, therefore, be able to contribute towards strategic discussions on GMOs – an objective highlighted in question 6 of the Presidency paper. In fact, "decide" might be a more appropriate description than "contribute".

These proposals will, however, require agreement on the revision to the regulation governing the release of GMOs in the environment – the famous Regulation 90/220 – if they are to provide the regulatory framework necessary to restore public confidence in relation to GMOs.

The conciliation procedure on the revision to Regulation 90/220 is due to start later this month and it is essential that Member States and the European Parliament assume their responsibilities and reach agreement. I would appeal to Ministers to work closely with their colleagues in the Environment Council where the formal discussions on this revision are taking place.

Agriculture Ministers must be seen and heard in this debate which is fundamental to food and food production. It is a very practical response to question 6 in the Presidency discussion paper: "what contribution can be made to work begun in other Council formations which will affect the development of quality food chains?".

I will conclude with a short observation on the final question in the Presidency Paper – "which method would best enable us to incorporate our public health concerns in the international and in the enlargement framework?".

Clearly, we cannot compromise on our commitment to food safety in international bodies. However, we have to acknowledge that there is a high degree of suspicion, especially in developing countries, of our motives. Many view it as a protectionist agenda. As the world’s largest food exporter, we must ensure that such misunderstandings are put right.

In the WTO, the Community will continue to defend our commitment to the highest levels of food safety and we will press to have the SPS reflect this commitment. However, we must do this in a constructive manner. We need not approach this issue in a defensive manner. Instead, we must make our case on the basis of sound science, open and transparent decision making and prudent risk management.

This approach lies behind the Commission’s communication on the use of the precautionary principle where we have set out the basis for its use. This strategy has been very successful. It has succeeded in initiating debate on the issue, in a very constructive manner, in the WHO/FAO, in the CODEX, in the OECD and even in the G7 process. Our motives are now better understood and our trade partners are now more convinced of the need for clarification on the use of a legitimate principle.

At the Community level, I look forward to the further discussions on the principle which are planned in the lead up to the European Council in Nice and thank the French Presidency for its very constructive role in leading the discussions.

Similarly, in the enlargement process, we must ensure that food safety is not jeopardised. Again, however, our approach must be constructive. It is not too late to provide sound advice and assistance to the applicant countries to bring their regulatory and control systems into line with the Community acquis. This should be our approach rather than the erection of barriers.

To conclude, the coming months will provide us with many, many opportunities to address the very important issues raised in the Presidency discussion paper. We must, collectively, seize this opportunity in the interests of our citizens and our responsibility to maintain a diverse, high quality and safe system of agricultural production.

Thank you for your attention.



Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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