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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speaking by Commissioner D. Byrne - Conference on Nutrition and Health in Europe, Paris, 15 December 2000

Minister, Mr Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by thanking the Société Française de santé publique, for the kind invitation to speak at this European Congress. This congress is addressing a topic of major importance for public health in the European Union, namely how to reduce inequalities in health in Europe. Within this broad and important subject, the programme committee has decided to focus on nutritional policy in Europe, a decision which I strongly welcome.

Indeed the relationship between the food we eat and health is very important.

My portfolio in the Commission comprises responsibility on both food and public health. And I can assure you that the Commission has given the highest importance and priority to these interrelated areas. I would identify two important aspects in that relation.

The first aspect is food safety; the food that is placed on the market should be safe.

The second is that the food that we eat should be conducive to our overall good health and well being.

I would also like to add a third aspect; eating should give pleasure. And France, who has organised this session in the context of their Presidency, knows much about this aspect. But I will not go further into this aspect today – at least not before lunch.

I Food Safety

In January this year, the Commission launched a White Paper on Food Safety. This important document outlines a radical new approach in relation to food safety through the establishment of an independent European Food Authority, and the adoption of 84 measures.

Several of the proposals identified in the White Paper have already been brought forward by the Commission. However, the most important one is the Commission’s proposal laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing the European Food Authority, and laying down procedures in matters of food. This proposal is the cornerstone of our new food safety policy and is designed to overcome the weaknesses of the past and to put food safety firmly at the top of our agenda.

I do not wish to go into the details of our proposal today. But let me emphasise that I believe it is essential for us to adopt clear objectives and definitions in the matter of food at the European level.

We must ensure a uniform and high level of health protection for our citizens. We need common principles and requirements of food law for the protection of health and consumers’ interests ensuring that food safety problems are addressed from "the farm to the fork". These principles will ensure traceability of foods, requiring that only safe foods are placed on the market, and ensuring that foods are clearly and adequately labelled to enable our consumers to make informed choices.

We require strong traceability provisions, a common understanding of the operation of the precautionary principle in risk management, and clear responsibilities for food and feed business operators.

These are among the key aspects of the food law part of the proposal. But we also have important provisions for the establishment of a European Food Authority.

The Authority’s mission will be to provide the Community with independent scientific and technical advice that it requires to underpin policy and legislation in the area of food safety. It will also address scientific questions relating to nutrition, animal health and animal welfare, plant health and GMOs.

The structures of the Authority are designed to ensure the realisation of important objectives:

  • Independence and transparency
  • Involvement of Member States, including an Advisory Forum
  • Scientific excellence.

We believe that the Authority is a key instrument in our drive to restore consumer confidence. By communicating to the general public clear, accurate and readily accessible information, the Authority intends to become the automatic and trusted first port of call on food safety matters.

The Authority will also be entrusted with the essential task of collecting and analysing data to facilitate the early identification of emerging risks. Central to its functioning is the deep integration of the expertise and resources of the Member States through a series of dedicated networks.

The Commission wants to ensure that the Community is equipped with the very best instruments and systems to deal with crises. But more importantly, we want to be able to anticipate them well in advance and to put effective responses in place to protect the health of our consumers.

II Nutrition

The second aspect of the relationship between food and health is the nutritional aspect:

Nutrition is recognised as one of the major health determinants. It is currently admitted that an unhealthy diet and a sedentary life style are responsible for approximately one third of the cases of cancers, and for premature deaths due to cardiovascular diseases.

Nutrition is also an important determinant for the prevalence of obesity, which continues to rise in the Community both among children and among adults. In Ireland, for instance, the adult population is gaining one gram every day, which means 365 grams a year or almost 4 kilos every ten years.

Nutritional imbalance accounts for greater than a hundred times more premature deaths, than food-borne infections in Europe. It is, therefore, important to focus on food and nutrition as well as food safety, in order to provide the people of Europe with the best possible health and quality of life.

There are some major trends in the nutritional field, which are shared by most Member States. These trends are of serious concern to public health in the European Union.

  • The consumption of fruit and vegetables is still very low, especially in the northern part of the Community, and in socially disadvantaged groups.
  • The consumption of cereals has fallen by one quarter since 1960 for Europe as a whole and meat consumption has increased, in some countries in dramatic ways.
  • Recent dietary data suggests that micronutrient deficiencies are rising to levels of public health concern, in particular in iron, iodine and folate. This affects most of our Member States.
  • The dietary energy intake from fat, and especially the intake of saturated fat, is high in most Member States.

It would seem from the above that the dietary habits of our fellow citizens in the European Union are not quite what they should be and that there is work to be done within the area of nutrition.

However, I must quickly stress that this does not imply that nothing has been done until now. In the areas of research, food legislation, consumer education and information, agriculture, fisheries, trade and training of health professionals and social policies, in addition to public health, actions have already been taken place, and several projects have been supported.

III Food law

Harmonisation of food legislation has been a long standing activity of the Commission. The basic aims of this harmonisation have been to ensure a high level of public health protection and the free circulation of foodstuffs across the Community. This process has been based on diversity, choice and proportionate safeguards. And it has focussed on key needs, such as:

- the need to make a wide choice of safe foodstuffs available to the consumers at reasonable prices;

- the need to provide information to consumers about the products they buy and to enable them to make informed choices suitable for their individual needs.

- and finally, the need to define specific rules for the minimum requirements for products intended for defined groups of the population with particular nutritional needs.

The White Paper on Food Safety further recognised that there is scope for improving the information that is provided to the consumer. In this regard proposals will soon be brought forward on the harmonisation of rules on food labelling, claims and nutrition labelling.

The existing labelling legislation already obliges manufacturers to provide information that will enable consumers to know about the nature, composition and use of the products they buy. It also lays down the rules for providing more information on the nutritional content of products in particular.

The Commission intends to propose a new amendment, which implies full ingredient labelling of compound ingredients. This new labelling will ensure optimal consumer information about the composition of a food product. It will also provide the necessary information for those consumers who for health or ethical reasons avoid certain ingredients.

Further, I believe that it is advisable to assist consumers who suffer from allergies or food intolerance as much as possible by giving them comprehensive information about the composition of products. Therefore, we will also propose that certain substances, recognised scientifically as being the source of allergies or food intolerance, should be included in the list of ingredients.

We will also put forward proposals at Community level to harmonise rules relating to nutritional and functional claims. The consumer interest in the relationship between diet and health is increasing, and the industry’s interest to use claims as a marketing tool is strong. This has led to the marketing of a growing number of products that bear claims on their labels or in their advertising as to their beneficial effects. Information appearing there may be the most important way of capturing consumer attention and conveying the merits of the product. Harmonised rules on definitions and conditions to be met in order to make such claims will ensure that this information is adequate, appropriate and not misleading. They will also ensure uniform application across the Community.

We will take into consideration the relevant work that has been done at International level by the Codex Alimentarius and by the Council of Europe when preparing these proposals.

Information on the nutrient content of products is an important tool for informing consumers of the nutritional value of these products. After nearly 10 years of application of the existing legislation, the Commission will now look at how means of providing this information can be improved and completed in order to better assist consumers in making their choices.

I am well aware that information on the label on its own is not sufficient. Consumers should have the knowledge, or should be educated in order to be able to use the labels to good purpose, to make appropriate choices for their diet and in order to be able to drive the market through their purchasing power. We will therefore examine appropriate actions in co-operation with Member States in that area.

The Commission has devoted substantial resources to research that is relevant to nutrition and will continue to do so. It has also contributed resources to bring together scientific expertise in order to review existing scientific evidence about the relationship between the intake of nutrients and certain diseases. The Commission will consider very carefully the available information when preparing, as announced in the White Paper, our Recommendations on European Dietary Guidelines. Our aim is that these recommendations will help the people in Europe to make healthy choices, and that the recommendations will support the Member States in their development of a nutrition policy at the national level. This will be one of the concrete actions in the nutrition field announced in the White Paper.

But most importantly, the Commission will also launch a Communication on an action plan on nutrition policy. My services are already working on both documents and we expect to bring them forward in the near future.

I would like to inform you that this Nutrition Action Plan Communication will outline a nutritional policy, which will focus on promoting good health and quality of life at all stages in life, and on reducing risks of diseases throughout Europe. The Communication will aim to tackle these issues in a comprehensive and coherent manner.

It is of course important to keep in mind that nutrition is very much a national and regional issue. Still, it is clear that the European Union plays an important role in nutrition and food intake in the Community. The aim of a Commission nutrition policy is to enable the Member States and the partners to work together to fight common trends, which are detrimental to health in the nutrition field.

As you may know, the Commission has recently proposed a new public health programme, which was discussed in the Health Council in Brussels yesterday. This programme will, when implemented, replace the current eight action programmes in the field of public health. In this new public health programme, the main aim is to protect and improve public health, and we are drawing special attention to the integration of human health in all Community policies.

This programme focuses on three main priorities:

1. Improving health information and knowledge;

2. Responding rapidly to threats to human health;

3. Addressing health determinants.

In order to be able to implement actions and to put a comprehensive and coherent nutrition policy into practice, one needs accurate information on nutrition, food consumption and dietary habits. In the nutrition field, more reliable and comparable information is definitely needed. The work has already started under the current Health Monitoring programme, and my ambitious aim is to make this information not only of undeniable quality but also to make it accessible to citizens, professionals and policy makers throughout Europe. This will be an important step towards an evidence-based policy in the nutrition field.

As a major health determinant, nutrition will also be addressed under the health determinants strand. The main focus of this strand is to address health determinants through health promotion and disease prevention measures, by supporting and developing broad measures of health promotion and disease prevention as well as specific risk reduction and elimination instruments. This involves promoting the positive determinants of health and fighting against the negative determinants in order to improve the quality of life in the population, and to reduce the burden of morbidity and mortality.

The new programme provides means for actions on nutrition, promotion of physical activity and the fight against excessive alcohol consumption. Recommendations on food will inform the Community population of the advantages or the risks they take while adopting one or another dietary habit. The impact that healthy dietary habits would represent for the well being and the health of the population is evident.

Minister, Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen,

Much of the course of European integration has been moved by the need to provide a secure and nutritious food supply. This culture of food and nutrition is part of our shared European heritage. And so, in discussing the emergence of a new dimension dealing with public health, diet and nutrition, we are opening a new chapter in the tale of Europe’s enduring passion for good food. We must, therefore, ensure that in working together over the coming months, we produce equally palatable policies.

Thank you very much for your attention, and let me wish you a very successful Congress.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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