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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Address by David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection to the Davos World Economic Forum - "Should we be frightened by food", Davos, Saturday 27 th January 2001

Challenging Orthodoxies

Established orthodoxies need a critical eye.

The established orthodoxy that food is safe, wholesome, nutritional and of high quality needs critical examination. Equally, more alarmist assertions that we should be frightened by our food need scrutiny.

This is one of the inherent values of the Davos process. Everything is put under the spotlight in an atypical forum and orthodoxies are challenged.

They must be constantly challenged.

Confidence crisis

For example, some countries of the European Union felt until recently that they were BSE-free, notwithstanding scientific advice to the contrary from the scientists advising the European Commission.

And we know what happened when the scientists' predictions were proven correct. Consumers became frightened and a crisis of confidence in beef quickly emerged.

What is even more worrying is that episodes like this tend to undermine confidence in political institutions charged with protecting consumers’ interests. And tend to undermine confidence in the science-based approach to assessing risk.

And if consumers have that confidence deficit, this in turn tends to be reflected in attitudes towards EU-wide responses. And in turn this brings into question in citizens’ minds the very essence of European integration. The building of a stronger, deeper and broader European Union. One that is closer to peoples’ real, day- to-day concerns. A European Union that fundamentally serves the interests of our citizens and consumers.

But, on the other hand, if people see that the Commission - at the European level - is taking firm, decisive and tough action to protect their health and well being, then they can have greater confidence in the institutions of the European Union.

And that is what I have set out to do in my role as European Commissioner responsible for consumer protection, food safety and public health. That is why I have the comprehensive Food Safety Action Plan published last year in the Commission's White Paper on Food Safety.

Bridging divides

I have been developing and implementing a philosophy and vision of a shared approach to food safety. In the words of the Davos theme, bridging divides.

Because we have divides within the Union. One would be foolish not to recognise that and develop strategies to brook them. But divides also with our trading partners which must be bridged. Divides, on the one hand, which can cause distortions of the Single Market. Divides, on the other hand, that lead to international trade battles.

Anti-Protectionism

Let me say at this stage that I do not see the science-based approach that I have advocated since coming to office to be protectionist in trade terms. I want the scientific advice given to me and the European Union as a whole to be fully independent and transparent and of the highest possible quality.

That, among other reasons is why I am establishing the fully independent European Food Authority, separate from all branches of executive and legislative arms of the EU.

But that said, I do not see independent scientific advice a being purely the preserve of Europe. Molecules or micro-organisms are the same on both sides of the Atlantic. The H2O molecule bears neither the twelve gold stars of the EU nor the stars and stripes of the US.

The increasing public awareness of issues related to food safety, the rapid progress in science and the introduction of new technologies pose important challenges to national and international food safety systems.

Foods are traded as global commodities. Not only do they contribute directly to the health and well being of citizens but also, in many countries provide an important basis to the economic stability of a nation in terms of income and revenue and also employment. Confidence in the safety of food, in the controls applied by industry and Governments and the philosophy and basis for national and international food safety standards have to be considered as of paramount importance to the continued social and economic health of every nation.

This was recognised at the Okinawa G8 of July 2000, where Heads of State agreed that "maintenance of effective national food safety systems and public confidence in them assumes critical importance in public policy" and that "we are committed to continued efforts to make systems responsive to the growing public awareness of food safety issues, the potential risks associated with food, the accelerating pace of developments in biotechnology, and the increasing cross-border movement of food and agricultural products".

Global vision

If we are building an ever deepening European Union we must have a European-wide scientific capacity. But I also envisage that if we are committed to greater global trade and commerce, we must look to greater scientific co-operation at the global level between the major trading blocks and, indeed, with developing countries.

This is a vision that I would like to develop, particularly as the European Food Authority gets up and running from next year.

Transparency and Enforcement

There is a growing acceptance of the need for food safety matters to be dealt with in an objective and open manner. Involvement of stakeholders, transparent procedures and the use of independent scientific advice to underpin food regulation are crucial elements in ensuring public confidence in the food supply.

The enforcement and application of such rules by Governments and trading partners are also essential to the maintenance of this confidence, as is effective communication to citizens about the reality and magnitude of risks from food. National and international food safety systems need to be based on these fundamental elements in order to maintain public confidence.

Contextualising Risk

At the international level the assessment of food safety has so far been focused on safety evaluations and the development of principles and methodologies for risk assessment. The rapid development in science poses a particular challenge to safety evaluations making it necessary to regularly review assessments and methodologies for risk assessment. In particular, the issue of long term and unintended effects is raised repeatedly, when novel foods and substances are introduced. There is a need to develop appropriate methodologies for the assessment of long term effects.

As methodologies for risk assessment have developed, these are often compartmentalised for one type of risk or another without taking an overview of the total risk of a substance, process or food. Further work is needed at the international level to consider risk assessment methodologies which are broadly based.

And finally, we must ensure that those bodies charged with the responsibility of assessing risk at the international level follow transparent procedures in the application of scientific principles, in the selection of experts to consider scientific questions and in the source and type of information considered during the assessment process. Without these safeguards the very basis for the scientific foundation of food safety standards could be questioned adding to the concerns of consumers.

Part Science - Part Management

But it is not all about science. Even where there are situations of agreement between scientists on a global level, different management and regulatory responses may be taken in different countries or regions. That this may be so is, of course, underlined by the jurisprudence of the WTO appellate body in the hormones case.

Biotechnology

Let me take a case in point – biotechnology. There is general agreement among scientists on a global level about the safety of genetically modified seeds, animal feed and human food. Any yet we have one of the most contentious subjects on our hands at the political level.

It is clear to me that the controversy around this subject owes as much and more to ideology and entrenched positions than anything else. And I fear that this goes both for proponents and opponents of the technology. It seems to me that the pro-lobby has done itself no favours in the past by its aggressive and less than honest stance on the issue. Equally the contra-lobby has been extremist and less than honest in its own right.

Over the past eighteen months or so some more rationale has begun to creep into the debate. This is something I have personally encouraged and I am glad that a more moderate tone has been evident.

This is not to say that public opinion within the European Union has changed appreciably. It has not. There is also evidence that public opinion in the US is shifting towards a more questioning attitude.

Regulatory responses in both the EU and the US have commenced to respond. Let me outline what I envision as the European Commission’s strategy on the regulatory side.

This approach, while clearly based on the best available science, also draws on environmental, consumer and ethical points of view. The basis of the approach is simple - a science-based safety regulatory model allowing for consumer choice. The Commission's strategy is designed to break the present deadlock on GM authorisations, address public concerns in relation to GMOs and ensure legal certainty.

  • Release of GMOs into the Environment - The revised Directive 90/220 has been just adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

Over the next couple of months we will table the following laws :

  • Traceability and Labelling - A new Regulation will be proposed to the Parliament and the Council on these two vitally important topics. This fully horizontal law will cover all sectors (seeds, feed and food) with specific but distinct requirements for (live) GMOs and products derived from GMOs. It will also have specific requirements for the labelling of (live) GMOs.

Pending adoption by Parliament and the Council of this Regulation, the Commission will adopt guidance for traceability of GMOs under the Revised Directive 90/220.

  • Food - A new Regulation on mandatory labelling of GM foods and food ingredients directly derived from GMOs. This will provide the full information consumers demand. At the same time, in order to ensure early implementation of this approach, we will amend the existing Regulation concerning the labelling of authorised varieties of maize and soya. This will dispense with the DNA/protein criteria as the trigger for labelling, thereby implementing the new labelling regime for the maize and soya concerned. Authorisation holders for these varieties would then be required to change the labels on their products accordingly.
  • Feed - A new Regulation on GM feed with requirements on authorisation and labelling. Traceability issues being dealt with in the general traceability Regulation.
  • Seeds - Technical requirements will be established through new legislation establishing for example planting distances and threshold levels.

I have also directed that the overall revision of the Novel Foods Regulation be accelerated. A review of the existing Regulation will be carried out in the first half of this year with proposals for amendment likely to emerge in September next. My review will include issues such as :

  • different provisions for GM foods and other novel foods;
  • improvements of the authorisation and notification procedures (making them clearer, more efficient and transparent); a centralised/Community procedure (with applications by companies directly to the European Food Authority) will be considered;
  • dispensing with the notification procedure for GM derived foods and food ingredients based on substantial equivalence.

All of this might seem on the complicated side. But this is in the nature of ensuring a strong and certain regulatory framework. If one were to drop anyone of these components, we would not have a strategy.

Perhaps not all aspects of our approach will be fully welcomed by the proponents or opponents of modern biotechnology. One cannot satisfy everyone all of the time.

I am, however, satisfied that we have developed a consistent, transparent and workable strategy. We identified dialogue with all stakeholders as being of the utmost importance. I believe we have made very great efforts over the past six months to meet and engage with consumer and environmental representatives. We have also met with representatives of enterprise.

When we are talking of BRIDGING DIVIDES the story is almost never-ending, especially where beliefs are passionately or viscerally held. We must continue not just to develop our legislation, but equally to develop our capacity to dialogue and communicate. To dialogue to foster mutuality of understanding. To communicate the truth. Full transparency, no holds barred. In this regard I heartily endorse and fully support plans to hold an "Edinburgh II" style conference on biotechnology. I am also encouraged by the conclusion of the recent EU-US Biotechnology Consultative Forum.

Killer agents

I have devoted quite a considerable part of my address to the issue of biotechnology – chiefly because of the high level of public interest in, and indeed concern about, the issue. But there are many other areas of real concern that are life threatening or severely debilitating. These deserve more public attention for that very reason.

Here I am talking about Listeria, Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning (ASP), Dioxin, Salmonella and Campylobacter.

Taking Salmonella and Campylobacter alone, there are over 300,000 cases among the European population every year. These figures are widely considered to be gross underestimates of the true extent of these diseases. And then there is the costs in terms

of public healthcare and the economic costs to be considered. For, example these costs in respect of Salmonella alone are estimated in the EU to be between €650 million and €3 billion annually.

In the US, scientists estimate that the 76 million foodborne illnesses each year there account for 325,000 hospitalisations and 5,000 deaths. Foodborne illness is also extremely costly. Researchers estimate that the annual cost of all foodborne diseases in the US is $5 to $6 billion in direct medical expenses and lost productivity. Salmonella and Campylobacter together account for $1 billion in direct and indirect medical costs.

It is clear that there are public health and economic grounds for action. Without going into the details, I will be proposing tough new legislation to address many of these issues in the early part of this year.

Conclusion

There needs to be greater emphasis on an integrated and comprehensive approach, considering food safety, wholesomeness and quality, in conjunction with economic, environmental and ethical matters at all parts of the production chain.

It is clear that ‘Food safety’ should not be regarded as a series of one-shot actions, for example as a reaction to a scare, but rather as an essential component of a new food production/consumption model which would be based less on output and more on meeting consumer expectations for safe, wholesome, nutritious and diversified foods. In other words, food safety and food quality would not be regarded as discrete objectives, but rather as entwined components of a sustainable food production/ consumption model. Increased international co-operation and effort are needed to meet this challenge.

We should not be frightened by our food. But we must be vigilant.

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

 
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