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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Remarks by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection to the European Parliament - Committee on Fisheries, Tuesday, 28 th November 2000

Introduction

I am pleased to accept your invitation to address you here this morning and answer your questions. This is my first visit to your Committee and it is a great honour and pleasure.

The fishing sector is a very important one. It is facing many challenges. There are market concerns. Availability concerns. Environmental concerns and many other issues.

My focus, as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, is, of course, primarily on public health issues and food safety issues.

I would like to take the opportunity this morning to outline initiatives the Commission has taken, or is in process of formulating, in four areas of direct concern to the fishery sector, namely on

  • Listeria
  • Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP)
  • Dioxin, and
  • Hygiene

LISTERIA

Listeria is a ubiquitous bacterium known to cause foodborne outbreaks of listeriosis in humans. The number of listeriosis cases is much lower in comparison to other major food-borne pathogens like Salmonella. However, listeriosis has severe consequences, in particular for susceptible categories of the population. Indeed, there is up to 20-30 percent mortality among infected persons. Different foods, including fishery products, have been identified as the origin of known outbreaks. For instance, smoked mussels and smoked fish have been involved in outbreaks in Australia and Sweden, respectively, and contamination of fishery products by listeria is not exceptional.

The Commission asked in 1999 for an opinion from the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures relating to Public Health on the risk to health from the presence of listeria at different levels in ready-to-eat food. The Scientific Committee issued its opinion in September 1999. It recommended that "management options to control and/or lower the risk of human listeriosis from food consumption must be implemented in view of the high case-fatality rate of this infection".

In particular, an objective must be to keep the concentration of listeria in food below 100 units per gramme and to significantly reduce the fraction of foods with a concentration above 100 units per gramme. The Committee went on to recommend that Hazard Analysis Critical Control Points (HACCP) and Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) must be geared to reduce or eliminate the occurrence of listeria in the production environment.

I am pleased to announce that the Commission is actively working with the Member States' authorities to finalise a Commission Decision aimed at reinforcing control measures taken by food operators. The main element is to oblige operators to consider the risk of listeria in their products. They must take, where appropriate, preventive measures to ensure that throughout the shelflife of the relevant food, the concentration of listeria does not exceed the tolerated maximum amount. In general, the concentration of 100 unit per gramme has been proposed.

Further meetings of experts have been arranged over the coming weeks. I am anxious to have legislation formulated early in the new year so that it can be adopted quickly thereafter. Of course, the Commission's proposals will have to be submitted to the SPS to ensure their compliance with our international obligations.

ASP IN SCALLOPS

The Commission is well aware of the problem of the presence of Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP) in Scottish waters and also in other Community waters.

We are also aware of the economic concern about the harvesting and marketing of scallops. It is however very important to underline the seriousness of the health problems caused by the presence of ASP in molluscs.

We are working hard at finding a workable solution to the ASP problem to ensure that consumers are not put at risk. We have already discussed the matter with the Standing Veterinary Committee of the Member States.

A special Working Group on the issue has been established involving the Community and National Reference Laboratories for Marine Biotoxins.

This group is analysing whether scallops with high levels of toxin (ASP) may be allowed to be harvested and marketed, after a total removal of the contaminated parts. However, further expert reflection is required. I would hope to put concrete proposals to the Standing Veterinary Committee as early as possible at the beginning of next year.

DIOXIN

The health significance of human exposure to PCBs and dioxins has been the subject of extensive discussions. The major source of human background exposure is food, with food of animal origin being the predominant source.

The Commission identified in the White Paper on Food Safety the need to define standards for contaminants throughout the chain from feed to food. Also the Feira European Council of June this year asked the Commission to propose harmonised rules on contaminants, in particular on dioxins.

The European parliament in its plenary session on 4 October called upon the Commission to set maximum limits for dioxins and PCBs in all feedingstuffs.

The scientific basis for setting these limits has been addressed by the Commission as a matter of priority. Therefore the Scientific Committee for Food and the Scientific Committee for Animal Nutrition have been requested to assess the risks for public health arising from the presence of dioxins and PCBs in food and feed. Given the great complexity of the problem, the scientific opinions have only very recently been adopted by the Committees and they were published last Friday.

The main conclusions of the Scientific Committee on Animal Nutrition are :

  • Fish oil and fish meal are the most heavily contaminated feed materials (with products of European fish stocks more heavily contaminated than those from South America);
  • Animal fat is next in order of concentration and may carry significant, although lower levels of dioxin contamination;
  • Roughages present a wide range of dioxin concentration depending on location, degree of contamination with soil and exposure to sources of aerial pollution;
  • Other feed materials such as cereals and seeds, milk by-products and meat-and-bone meal, are less important sources of dioxin.

The contribution of individual feed materials to the dioxin contamination of the whole diet for farmed animals depends on the intrinsic degree of contamination and the proportion used in the diet.

The Scientific Committee on Food in its opinion established a temporary tolerable weekly intake of 7 picogram per kilogram body weight for dioxins and closely related PCBs. Representative dietary intake data suggest that a considerable part of the European population exceeds the tolerable intake. The Committee states that this does not necessarily mean that there is an appreciable risk to the health of individuals, because the tolerable weekly intake includes a safety factor. However, exceeding this intake leads to erosion of the protection embedded in the safety factor. The tolerable weekly intake of 7 picogram per kilogram body weight concurs with the lower end of the range of 7 to 28 picogram per kilogram body weight a week established by the WHO Consultation.

Both Committees recommend an integrated approach to reduce dioxin contamination all along the food and feed chain, a continuing reduction of the emissions to the environment and more systematic and co-ordinated generation and collection of comparable and reliable data.

The Commission has been working towards a comprehensive strategy to deal with dioxin contamination in the environment, feed and food to protect public health. These two scientific opinions form the key scientific input for this strategy.

In determining measures, the most important objective for the Commission is the protection of public health by reducing the human exposure to dioxins and dioxin like PCBs. We will consult with Member States in the near future with a view to bringing forward our strategic proposals in 2001. We need to reduce the levels of dioxin generally in the environment which will then have a "knock-on" effect for the level in our food. The economic impact shall be considered but it must be clear that this cannot deteriorate the level of consumers' protection which is pursued by the Commission.

There are though specific measures that will need to be taken. Fish feed is one such case. The fish concerned cannot continue to enter the food chain as they do at present. It seems clear that action will have to be taken concerning fish meal and fish oil sources from those areas in Europe where levels of contamination are high. This means that the industry concerned will have to adapt and all options for assisting it to do so need rapid examination. Possibilities for purifying the products require full exploration since they would also bring environmental benefits: dioxin would be removed, concentrated and destroyed. But in so far as there are limits to such processing, we probably will have to face the fact that certain fishing activities will need to be reduced and measures taken to assist the operators concerned to reduce their activities.

I cannot enter at this stage into more details on the nature of the measures as the scientific opinions have become available only very recently. But I will be happy to come back again at a later stage to inform you more in detail on the measures I will propose to ensure food and feed safety.

HYGIENE

Turning finally to food hygiene, I welcome the general support of this Committee on the Commission's proposals on this subject. I am aware that the fisheries sector already applies a high level of food safety, as the present hygiene rules that apply to your sector anticipate, to a large extent, the ambitions set out in the White Paper on Food Safety. This is in particular the case for the need to ensure food hygiene from farm (or in this case from sea) to table, and for the principle that food business operators must develop the methods to ensure safe food by implementing the HACCP-system to which I referred earlier.

Whilst in practice the package of proposals will not therefore provoke major changes for the fisheries sector, I would like to draw your attention to some issues that are new.

First of all there is the need to establish guides to good hygienic practices. These guides must be established by the sectors concerned, and give guidance to the fish business operators on the correct implementation of the food hygiene rules. Their establishment is an essential element of the new system, and I expect the different food sectors, including the fisheries sector, to assume their responsibility and to take initiatives for establishing these guides.

There is also the question of flexibility. We have been cautious in formulating the requirements so as to take account of the specific nature of small businesses, businesses that are situated in regions suffering from special geographical constraints such as remote islands, and traditional ways of food production. I believe that this flexibility will be beneficial for certain food sectors, including the fisheries sector.

I would also like to take this opportunity to underline the necessity for the adoption of Regulations, as opposed to Directives. I believe that this is the only way to ensure a uniform implementation of the Community rules throughout the EU, and it is the only tool to ensure the transparency that is so much needed.

Conclusion

The issues that I have just spoken about are very important for public health and food safety. We are working towards practical solutions to ensure that fish and fish products are as safe as possible. The public is rightly demanding high standards. We have an obligation in the Treaty to ensure a high level of public health protection.

As the Commissioner responsible, I am determined to fulfil that obligation and satisfy the very legitimate concerns of our consumers.

I am conscious that the members of your Committee are also concerned about public health and food safety. I believe that, working constructively together, we can give effect to the Treaty's mandate.

I am now looking forward to a lively exchange of views.

Thank you, Chairman.

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Speeches Commissioner Byrne
FOOD SAFETY | PUBLIC HEALTH | CONSUMER PROTECTION | DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH & CONSUMER PROTECTION"

 
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