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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Remarks by European Commissioner David Byrne to the Group of the European People Party and European Democrats in the European Parliament (EPP/ED), Brussels , 27/09/2000 - A European food Authority

I was delighted to accept the invitation to speak to the European Parliament Group of the European People's Party and European Democrats concerning the Commission’s plans to establish a European Food Authority.

I very much welcome this opportunity to set out my views and to engage in what I am sure will be an interesting exchange of views.

I would like to take this opportunity to give you a clear insight into my thinking and that of the Commission on the subject of the proposed European Food Authority.

I know that many of you are contributing to this subject in the Environment and other committees in the context of formulating Parliament’s opinion on the Commission’s White Paper on Food Safety.

The establishment of a European Food Authority is a key element of the White Paper.

We see its establishment as an essential foundation stone in our endeavours to overhaul Europe’s food safety regime.

Why should we go down this road to create a new structure? What will its "value-added" be? Why are national and regional systems not enough? Why not maintain the status quo?

In answer to these very pertinent questions, let me go back a little in time, indeed to the previous Commission and the previous Parliament when the issue of BSE was very sharply in focus.

That episode clearly demonstrated that Europe’s capacity to deal with such an alarming development was inadequate. In the light of that the Commission restructured the system of scientific advice at Community level. The scientific committees were restructured with a view to putting in place a system of scientific advice that was focused on promoting a high level of public health protection.

I have to say that that new system has served us well in the interim. Excellent advice has emerged from the eight sectoral scientific committees and the scientific steering committee. This advice has formed the basis of many far reaching legislative measures that the Commission has initiated, and which the Parliament and Council have adopted. These measures have had a very significant impact on improving public health protection for our citizens throughout the European Union.

Of course all systems face new challenges and must be attuned to ever changing needs. Upon coming to office just over one year ago, Europe was faceing new food alerts – dioxin, sludge, e-coli, listeria, salmonella. Consumer confidence bottomed out. There was a real questioning of the capacity of "the system", whether at national level or European level, to protect consumers.

People were legitimately asking – why can’t I go to the shop and be sure that what I am buying is safe and won’t pose a threat to my health and my children’s health? We were all asking similar questions and searching for answers.

That is why the new Commission, under the leadership of President Prodi, put the issue of food safety at the top of its priority list. That is why I set about producing a coherent plan to tackle the issue. That is why I produced our White Paper so quickly. And that is why a European Food Authority is central to our plans to improve food safety and restore consumer confidence.

It quickly became apparent to me that we needed major structural change if we were to achieve a high level of consumer protection and restore confidence.

Looking across the Atlantic, I saw that the American public placed great confidence in the work of the US Food and Drugs Administration. An institution that was science-based. But also an institution that was involved in management and legislation.

I concluded that such a model, while attractive in itself and clearly working for the US, would not be appropriate for the European scene.

I wanted to ensure that risk assessment and risk management would be separated. Such an approach would be in line with the provisions of the Treaty, which entrusted management, and legislation, to the Commission, Parliament and Council.

Indeed the Codex Alimentarius also envisages the separation of risk assessment and risk management.

That is the approach the Commission adopted and it is set out unambiguously in our White Paper.

By establishing the Food Authority, our aim is to put in place the best system of scientific advice, based on the principles of excellence, transparency and independence. We want to ensure that the risk assessments carried out by the Authority are assisted by the most up-to-date intelligence gathering systems. We cannot do this at present. Our present system is handicapped by a lack of capacity and has struggled to cope with an ever-increasing work load.

In the Authority, I envisage the pro-active capacity to gather and access state-of-the-art data on, for example, epidemiological information, prevalence figures and exposure data.

I also envisage the Authority developing extensive scientific networks with centres of excellence in the Member States and farther afield to ensure that it is accessing the best information that exists. The capacity to leverage research on food safety issues will, in addition, be an important function for the Authority.

At the core of the new Authority we will have scientific advice. This will involve "transferring" the work done at present by a majority of our scientific committees. In particular, the work of the scientific committees for food, animal nutrition, veterinary-public health, plants, animal health and welfare will be so transferred. Similarly, the tasks of the scientific steering committee will be transferred. However, we are planning a significant "re-vamp" of the structures of the transferred committees to ensure that they are focused and most effective.

In becoming the authoritative scientific reference in the Community, the Authority must draw together and build upon national food agencies and similar bodies in the Member States. I envisage this being done through a consultative committee comprised of senior personnel from such agencies and bodies. This approach will mitigate against competing science, enhance consumer confidence and facilitate the operation of the single market.

Among the other value-added functions of the Authority, I see a strong role for it in the area of risk communication. Letting consumers know in easily accessible language about risk. Putting the risks in context.

Communicating about nutrition in the context of food safety. But clearly not straying into the public health dimension of nutrition.

We also see the Authority operating the rapid alert system and assisting in any crisis situation in the future. However, I do not see the Authority taking management decisions in relation to the rapid alert system or taking management decisions in crises situations. This would be left to the Commission, and the other institutions as appropriate, in line with the separation of responsibility for risk assessment and risk management, about which I have already spoken.

I am particularly heartened by the positive reactions we have received so far from the Parliament to our plans. I take this opportunity to thank those MEPs present here today who have contributed, in their respective committees in the Parliament, to this very rich, and sometimes, challenging debate.

I am very much looking forward to the final opinion of the Parliament on the White Paper and, in particular, on the proposal to set up a European Food Authority.

At the beginning of November, the Commission will present the legislative proposal on the creation of the European Food Authority. I can assure you that we will take into account, to the greatest extent possible, the forthcoming opinion of the Parliament on this matter which, I understand, will be adopted in the second plenary session towards the end of October.

Finally, may I say that the question of the legal basis for our proposal on the Food Authority is a matter which, I know, is of importance to the Parliament. I envisage that our proposal will be based on Articles 95 and 152 of the Treaty. This will involve co-decision, so that the Parliament can have the maximum input to the debate on the legislative text. I look forward to constructive collaboration with Parliament in speedy adoption of this text.

Thank you for you attention and I look forward to a lively exchange of views.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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