David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer
Protection at the lunch meeting of the Centre for European
Policy Studies, Brussels 6
th March 2001
Health, Wealthy and Wise
Yesterday, Franz Fischler and I launched
a wide ranging debate on food quality issues by holding a
High Level Round Table on Food Quality. We had participants
from all parts of the food chain from primary production
through processing, distribution and retail, as well as a
number of academics and scientists to assist us.
We launched this initiative as we
believe that there is increasing consumer concern about
food quality issues. Of course these concerns arise in part
from the series of food safety crises we have had.
But as consumers become increasingly
sophisticated they are demanding higher standards and are
asking if their real or perceived needs are being
In the decades after the Second World
War food policy was determined by the need to increase
output and efficiency in order to achieve food
Now, though, general affluence and
surplus in our food supply has resulted in a gradual change
in public policy focus away from efficiency and
productivity towards quality and diversity in agri-food
Indeed modern food production methods
themselves have raised matters of public concern beyond
human health and safety in relation to environmental and
ethical aspects of agri-food production, including
sustainable development, animal health and welfare, and
We need a 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.
We need to consider the implications of
a new food production and consumption model, which would be
focused 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
As part of the debate we want to
generate we want people to consider some of the issues that
we, and consumers, are concerned about. What exactly is
quality? How do we define it? Does it mean different things
to different people? What is the impact of geography on
people’s perceptions of quality?
Even if we can’t get a uniform
definition of quality, we must strive to build a consensus
around key ingredients of quality.
And how does the consumer fit into all
of this. Modern production methods must put the consumer
Fundamentally, agriculture and food
production are demand driven. But, are the real demands of
consumers being reflected upstream in the food
I believe that consumers are
increasingly concerned that their needs are not being met.
Are their interests being heard in the boardrooms of
multinational food producing companies? Are these companies
more focused on short terms pressures of the stock market
and the longer-term issues of brand positioning? What is
the trade off between the development of the modern-day
global brands and food quality?
And then there is the thorny question of
quality versus price. Will people pay more for higher
quality products? How much more? What guarantees can they
have that they are really getting a higher quality product?
Do modern production methods militate against tasty and
wholesome food produce?
These kinds of issues are exercising the
minds of consumers throughout the European Union. These
issues go to the very heart of why we have launched this
initiative. We have identified a serious issue and we are
seeking the means to address it with the collaboration of
consumers and all stakeholders in the food production
Some of these questions are simple and
straightforward. But I expect that the answers will be
complex, particularly given the complexity of the modern
food chain and the high expectations of the modern
This is an exciting new initiative that
may, in time, have policy implications for the Common
At this stage, we are concerned to
generate a wide-ranging debate on all of the issues
involved to assess the issues involved. We intend to do
this by bringing the debate to the Member States, to the
Parliament, to stakeholders in a variety of ways, from
internet chats, to televised debates to more traditional
I would also be interested to learn if
the Centre for European Policy Studies has ideas to bring
to the table.
This is clearly a broader debate than
the one I embarked on initially in my term as European
Commissioner. My first task was to set about developing a
policy framework on food safety. This I have done through
the publication of the Commission’s White Paper on Food
Safety, including our plans to establish a European Food
I am glad to report that we are well on
the way to achieving the Commission’s ambitions in this
area. Of our 84 point action plan, we have some 25 measures
agreed or well into the legislative process.
I spoke earlier this morning to the CIAA
conference about the progress being made to set up the Food
This Authority has the potential to
achieve far-reaching change in the way we, as Europeans,
approach food policy. The Americans have had in place a
trusted system for over 80 years in the form of the Food
and Drugs Administration.
This model appears to have worked well
for them, particularly so far as public confidence is
concerned. Yet 76 million American citizens suffer from
food borne illnesses every year; and 5,000 die every year
from such illnesses. And there is evidence that these
numbers are on the increase.
Europe is confronted with not dissimilar
problems. Clearly, there is no such thing as zero
But what we as policy makers must put in
place are the systems and processes necessary to assess
risk, to communicate risk and to manage risk. Systems and
processes in which our own citizens can have confidence.
Systems and processes that work to protect our
This is the challenging task we are
actively engaged with in our endeavours to become an even
more health, wealth and wise society. I look forward to a
lively discussion on these questions over lunch.
FOOD SAFETY |
DIRECTORATE GENERAL "HEALTH
& CONSUMER PROTECTION"