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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by Commissioner D. Byrne : Safety, the most important ingredient of food: challenges for the poultry industry - General Assembly of the Association of European Poultry Slaughterhouses, Maastricht, 7 October 2000

Mr President, ladies and gentlemen

I am very pleased to join you today in Maastricht on this important occasion. I am also pleased to note my good colleague, Minister Brinkhorst, is among the speakers. Between us, I hope that we can provide you with a good oversight on how the poultrymeat sector is viewed both at the level of the European Union and at the level of the Member State.

The role and importance of poultry meat in the diet of European consumers is increasing. Since 1980, consumption has more than doubled. This increase has not come about by accident. Your product, by-and-large, enjoys a good reputation among consumers as lean, healthy, rich in protein and affordable. As an industry, you have also been innovative in developing new products to meet consumer demands.

Your industry is to be congratulated in these respects. However, I would warn against any complacency. Consumer confidence, especially on issues such as food safety, is very fragile. And once damaged, such confidence is very hard – and expensive – to regain. The impact of BSE on beef consumption is an example of what can happen if consumers lose trust in the safety of a food product.

For consumers, safety is the most important ingredient of their food. It comes before all other considerations, price, quality or presentation. Recent crises have undermined public confidence in the capacity of the food industry and of public authorities to ensure that food is safe. The political impact of such loss of confidence is huge. And policymakers cannot afford to be blind to this concern. Instead, they must be seen to take decisive action to put matters right.

It is a fact, therefore, that throughout Europe food safety has assumed major importance. I make no apology that the European Commission is leading this process. From his earliest days in Office, President Prodi identified it as one of his top priorities. Let me very briefly outline some of the key initiatives taken by the Commission which reflect this priority:

- Responsibility for food safety now falls to a single Commissioner – me;

- A new Directorate General for Health and Consumer Protection has been established which brings together all the key areas of responsibility in relation to food safety issues;

- A White Paper on Food Safety has been agreed outlining a wide range of new and important measures aimed at re-inforcing safety;

- A key proposal to establish a European Food Safety Authority will be unveiled in the very near future.

These initiatives are not aspirations. They are reflected in real and substantial actions. By way of example, in the European Parliament earlier this week, important progress was made on Commission proposals for new legislation on areas such as undesirable substances in feedingstuffs, on officials controls and inspections and on labelling of feedingstuffs.

The White Paper on Food Safety sets out our plans for a proactive new food policy: modernising legislation into a coherent and transparent set of rules, reinforcing controls from the farm to the table and increasing the capability of our scientific advice system.

We all know that the poultry sector has not been unaffected by food scares in the past. As damaging as these events may have been, they have also triggered both public and private initiatives to improve food safety in poultry production. But, unfortunately, the general picture emerging from the inspection reports leads to one major conclusion: very significant efforts still need to be made.

The Food and Veterinary Office of the Commission has recently completed a series of inspections in all 15 Member States to evaluate the veterinary supervision of poultry meat production. Based on the findings so far, it is clear that there are important shortcomings in poultry meat production.

The inspection reports point to two issues of particular concern. First, that Community legislation on poultry meat is not uniformly and adequately implemented and enforced. In most Member States, it appears, the competent authorities are not giving sufficient priority in terms of resources and structures for effective supervision of poultry meat production. Secondly, there are too many plants where production hygiene is far from satisfactory.

In almost all countries visited there were a number of plants with such severe shortcomings that immediate corrective actions were needed to safeguard public health. There is thus a clear need to make significant improvements in the poultry sector, and a clear task for the members of your association.

In my view, the industry and the supervisory authorities need to work closely together on such improvements. Our common objective is to achieve uniform application of Community legislation and high hygienic standards in poultry meat production in the EU. Together we must convince the European consumer of the safety and quality of the product. Poultry industries throughout the Community must be subject to the same framework of controls and requirements.

Follow-up action to the inspections carried out by the FVO is continuing. Each Member State has been requested to provide guarantees that the shortcomings in establishments and in the supervisory systems are corrected. The FVO has also initiated a series of follow-up missions to check that corrective measures have been taken.

Improvements in veterinary supervision in general, improvements in hygiene and of producer controls in establishments, better control of salmonella and animal welfare at slaughter are amongst those urgently required. I am, here today, asking for your co-operation in achieving these goals.

However, at the same time as reacting adequately to such current problems, and possibly more importantly, we need to be looking forward. I am reflecting, for example, on an overall report on the poultry meat sector aimed at ensuring that the issues raised in the FVO reports are addressed at the highest levels.

The Commission's aim for the coming years is to modernise, update and reinforce the rules of operation in the food sector. In the White Paper on Food Safety we have announced proposals that will transform the EU food policy into a pro-active, dynamic, coherent and comprehensive instrument to guarantee a high level of human health and consumer protection.

One of the leading ideas is that food businesses should bear the main responsibility for food safety. While on the one hand shifting this responsibility to businesses, we are at the same time leaving businesses much more flexibility to decide the means they employ to achieve a high level of safety. That is the approach I believe in: setting clear goals, but leaving it to the operators on the ground to find the best instruments and processes to implement the necessary safety checks.

This means that we have to reshape our legislation in a way which enables businesses to take on that duty. We have to get rid of rigid rules and detailed prescriptions, of systems which are not enforceable. As an example I would mention the review of the 1992 Zoonosis Directive - a familiar subject for most of you. In fact the input you have given has been useful in developing our proposals and is most appreciated.

But let us first look at some of the facts and the scientific advice I have received on this. The Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health has in an opinion published in May this year identified seven zoonotic agents as public health priorities. Amongst these are Salmonella and Campylobacter, both frequently found in poultry and poultry products.

The scientists also consider that the current measures to control food-borne zoonotic infections are insufficient. Although the data as currently collected by the Member States are incomplete and not fully comparable, it is notable that the two major zoonoses reported in humans are Salmonella and Campylobacter: in 1998, over 188 thousand cases of salmonella and almost 130 thousand cases of Campylobacter. I might add that these figures are widely considered to hugely underestimate the true extent of these diseases.

And the general trend is towards an increase in reported food-borne zoonotic diseases over the last 20 years. Partly due to improved monitoring, I accept. The Scientific Committee concluded that tighter controls and improvements in the monitoring of zoonoses are necessary.

Now we all know that controlling zoonoses is not an easy task. Certain zoonotic agents are ubiquitous, and our knowledge of their transmission pathways is incomplete. Given this situation, I feel it is essential to recognise that controlling zoonoses is a collective responsibility for the poultry sector as a whole.

That responsibility must be shared between the all operators along the food chain, from the farm to the slaughterhouse, from the slaughterhouse to the processing plant, and from the processing plant to the distributor. And the consumer should equally be made aware of the precautions to take to keep the product safe.

In the longer term, our aim in reviewing the legislation on zoonoses is twofold: to reinforce the controls on certain specific zoonoses and to create options for extending these controls to other stages of the food chain. The approach under consideration is to set incremental risk reduction objectives, moving step-by-step towards a low prevalence of zoonotic organisms.

The Commission's proposal for the new zoonoses legislation may therefore extend the focus of the control salmonella in particular in line with the 'top-down' approach of the ‘92 Directive - seeking to reduce their presence, starting from the top of the production pyramid. We will obviously need effective measures along the whole production chain.

I would expect producers and processors to use the opportunities given to set up on their own initiative control programmes for approval by the authorities. Because I think the expertise of those on the work floor is essential in finding effective and cost-efficient solutions.

Measures to improve food safety almost inevitably are a cost factor for the industry. We have however every reason to expect that such investments will prove rewarding. There is a price to be paid for rebuilding consumer trust, for breaking out of a downward spiral of growing mistrust with every major or minor food emergency.

And there is also to cost in terms of public health care and the economic cost linked to illness due to zoonotic infections to consider: for example, the economic and health care cost of salmonella in the EU is estimated at between 620 million and 3 billion euros annually. Finally, a solid food safety policy will in due course also become a competitive asset both on EU markets and in world trade.

The White Paper on Food Safety equally foresees a new and integrated approach towards official feed and food controls. A proposal implementing a modern food control system in all its different aspects will shortly be presented. It will cover controls at all levels of the food chain, including farms. It will create the possibility of performing audits, set out co-ordination and co-operation arrangements for crisis management in case of food emergencies, and provide for uniform safeguard measures.

This set of measures is in fact designed so as to enable the Commission and the Member States to react quickly and effectively to feed and food emergencies. So that, if feed or food emergencies arise, they can be brought under control and eliminated quickly, before damage spreads across borders or spills over into other production units or sectors.

This modernised system of controls will not only cover food and feed production within the EU, but equally apply to imports and exports. Imports of poultry meat into the EU totalled 180.000 tonnes in 1999, while one million tonnes were exported. These figures must be viewed in the context of total EU production of 9 million tonnes.

With the intensive world-wide trade in food products, in which the Community plays a prominent role, food safety cannot be seen as solely an internal policy question. In fact, food safety standards which guarantee equivalent levels of safety must be applied in EC approved production plants in third countries which export food products to the European market.

The FVO has therefore over the past two years visited poultry farms, production plants and laboratories in the framework of on-the-spot inspections in the biggest exporting third countries. The aim here is to verify that the poultry meat they export complies with the Community requirements. So far such inspections have taken place in Brazil, Thailand, Hungary and Poland, and more are foreseen in the near future.

The results of these inspections in those third countries to date indicate that the hygienic standards in EC approved plants and the supervisory systems are satisfactory. In fact, in a number of cases, the hygienic quality is not just satisfactory but excellent.

This brings us to the wider issue of sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures in the WTO context. Since the entry into force of the SPS Agreement in 1995, we are actively trying to minimise the potentially negative effects on international trade of measures to improve food safety. While, clearly, each WTO member has the right to establish their own level of sanitary protection, we cannot afford to erect unjustified trade barriers. Our measures must, therefore, be supported by scientific evidence or international recognised standards.

The WTO framework also offers the instrument of agreements on recognition of the equivalence of specified sanitary or phyto-sanitary measures. Such agreements facilitate import and export by mutually recognising the production conditions/rules in place in one country as equivalent to those of the other country.

To date we have concluded veterinary agreements with New Zealand, the USA and Canada. Exploratory discussions have also been initiated with some Latin American countries. The full potential of these agreements for your industry has yet to materialise.

We have agreed on the principle of regionalization in the animal health field, which means that in case of disease outbreaks such as Newcastle disease, you are still allowed to export your products originating from the disease-free regions. The USA, however, has not yet implemented this principle, notably for Classical Swine Fever.

In terms of trade liberalisation, results are still not visible enough. Equivalence has until now only been reached for a small number of sectors. With the US and Canada no equivalence has been reached yet for any of the sectors in the poultry area. In fact, US imports are as of today still suspended, but we know there is a significant export potential.

I have also been asked to speak to you about animal welfare issues. Animal welfare, as you may well be aware, is a subject of increasing concern amongst European consumers. More than once, I have had representatives in the food industry attack such concerns and the Commission’s efforts to improve animal welfare standards. I will not accept such attacks. Improved animal welfare standards are and will remain an important priority for this Commission.

The food industry will have to adapt to this situation. Your customers are increasingly demanding higher standards. You would be very misguided to ignore these demands. The consumer, as you well know, has a habit of getting what he or she wants. If you cannot meet their demands, others will.

Industrial farming in general, and industrial farming of broilers in particular, has featured prominently amongst the concerns raised. General rules for the protection of animals kept for farming purposes, including industrial farming, have been in place since 1998.

So far no detailed provisions exist for the protection of broilers. As you know, the Scientific Committee on Animal Health and Animal Welfare has in March this year given its opinion on broiler welfare issues. The scientists identified some major problems and have made several recommendations. My services will, on the basis of that opinion, develop a proposal on welfare requirements for broilers. In so doing, they will take into account relevant socio-economic data.

I appreciate the comprehensive documentation AVEC has made available to my services on this matter. The Commission is looking forward to a constructive dialogue with all interested parties, consumers and producers alike.

Animal welfare issues also have an international dimension. The Commission will soon be presenting a report comparing animal welfare provisions in the Community with provisions in third countries. As you know, there was considerable resistance at the Seattle W.T.O. Ministerial Conference to our attempts to put animal welfare on the agenda of the next round of trade talks on agriculture.

It is clear that much of this resistance was based on a misunderstanding of our objectives. I feel we must aim to respond to the legitimate concerns of consumers. Creating new barriers for animal products is not the objective. We will therefore pursue this issue actively on the international scene, both to launch a comprehensive round of trade talks and to create a better understanding of our concerns on animal welfare.

Ladies and gentlemen, I have taken up enough of your time. Let me conclude with the wish that we can continue to work together in meeting the demands of Europe’s consumers. By working together, I am confident that we can ensure a European poultry meat sector which can be proud of its commitment to safety in its products.

Thank you for your attention.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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