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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Remarks by 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 met.

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 security.

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 production.

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 social responsibility.

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 production/consumption model.

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 first.

Fundamentally, agriculture and food production are demand driven. But, are the real demands of consumers being reflected upstream in the food chain?

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 chain.

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 consumer.

This is an exciting new initiative that may, in time, have policy implications for the Common Agricultural Policy.

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 conferences.

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 Authority.

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 Authority.

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 risk.

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 citizens.

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.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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