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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne to the CIAA Conference on the General EU Food Law Principles and the European Food Authority, 6 March 2001, Venue: Swissôtel, Rue du Parnasse 19, Brussels

I am delighted to have the opportunity this morning to address this important conference on the recent proposal from the Commission on general food law and the plans for the establishment of the European Food Authority. As the Commissioner responsible for this initiative I am looking forward to sharing with you some of my thoughts on the very important task we all have ahead of us in rebuilding the confidence of consumers in the European Food supply.

Consumer confidence and the confidence of trading partners is key to the success of the food industry in Europe and in the global market place. The unprecedented waves of public concern that have recently swept through Europe in relation to BSE have once again highlighted the need for all those involved in producing, manufacturing or supplying food, on the one hand, and the official bodies responsible for regulating and controlling food safety standards on the other, to play their part in ensuring that the highest standards are maintained.

A safe food chain from farm to fork, correctly regulated and effectively controlled is the road to building this confidence. Food businesses have their role to play in this regard as ultimately it is the responsibility of every business to ensure the safety of the foods they produce, manufacture or sell.

The Commission is committed to ensuring that European consumers have access to the safest food supply in the world. I am determined to establish a comprehensive legal framework with effective and open organisational structures so that we can rebuild the fragile confidence in our food supply. Food safety has to be the driving force in the regulation of the food supply. In addition our legislation must be modern and flexible enough to regulate a highly technologically advanced European food industry while at the same time provide sufficient safeguards in smaller more traditional food businesses. Not only do we have to consider the food law itself but also we have to ensure that our procedures are efficient. For example where we have approval mechanisms for products, the scientific assessments must be carried out thoroughly and comprehensively, and without undue delay. Where food safety is assured we must not needlessly block industrial innovation, through over bureaucratic requirements. You will have seen our thoughts on how we deliver our objectives in the White Paper on Food Safety which we published last year. We received many positive comments on this paper including comments from the CIAA which we have now been integrated into our overall approach.

Originally heralded in the White Paper, the Commission’s proposal for a Regulation laying down the general principles and requirements of food law and establishing the European Food Authority is the cornerstone in our overall strategy. This proposal is now the subject of scrutiny in the European Parliament and in the Council. I am pleased to inform you that these institutions have afforded the proposal the highest priority and the progress made so far has been very encouraging.

Rather than go into the detail, what I would like to do is illustrate some of the major concerns and reasoning in putting forward such a far-reaching proposal.

Firstly, we see the need to include within a single Regulation, the principles of food law, the basic necessity for food law to be developed following the principles of risk analysis and to provide the organisational structures and procedures to deliver this. The regulation therefore not only establishes the general principles of food law but also proposes the establishment of the European Food Authority which will be responsible for ensuring that the scientific risk assessment part of the overall risk analysis process is carried out to the highest world standards. The Authority will have a wide remit and in parallel with the general principles of food law will also cover all scientific matters which may have a direct or indirect effect on the safety of the food supply. It will cover all stages of production and supply whether this is at the level of primary production including assessing the safety of animal feeds, right through to the supply of food to consumers.

We envisage that an Authority may well be functional by 2002 and will be based on the principles of independence, scientific excellence, transparency and accessibility. The EFA will be a major risk communicator providing information on food safety to the general public, and scientific opinions and risk assessments to those responsible for proposing food law in the European Commission. It will be separate from the European Commission, being a legal entity in its own right, and have its own budget. Our vision is that the Authority will be an automatic first port of call on all questions relating to food safety.

Secondly, the proposal establishes the basic principles that food law must provide a high level of health protection and that only safe food may be placed on the market. Within this principle there are also responsibilities, that is that the primary responsibility for safe food rests with industry, producers and suppliers, and it is the responsibility of the competent authorities in the Member States to ensure that food legislation is complied with. This is achieved through effective enforcement controls at all points in the chain from farm to table including in animal feed manufacturing establishments.

Thirdly our recent food safety problems have shown the need for comprehensive traceability of food along the food production chain. The proposed regulation will make it mandatory for businesses to have in place systems to trace at least from whom they have purchased foods and to whom they have supplied them.

Fourthly, to increase consistency and legal security, clear definitions are proposed including those for "a foodstuff" and "placing on the market".

And finally I believe the whole of the system for the development of food law, both the scientific opinions which, in the main, form the basis for proposals and the procedures whereby the Commission develops its proposals must be as transparent as possible. If the public cannot understand the reasoning behind a proposal then how can we expect them to have confidence in the system making such proposals or the legitimacy of the basis for them.

The only way to face the controversy surrounding many matters relating to food law and particularly in relation to such immotive matters as biotechnology, GMO’s is to promote an open-minded and balanced dialogue between all stakeholders - scientists, industry, farmers and consumers and by ensuring full transparency in the risk/benefit assessments. Furthermore, we have to accept and respect the consumers' right to have clear information in order to take informed decisions on which products they want to buy. Compromising on food safety is not a way for a farm or a company to reduce costs. It is actually a very dangerous path, not only for consumers, but also for the farm or company itself and for the whole sector involved. In an industry worth 535 billion euros annually in the European Union, that is about 15% of total manufacturing output, even a slight dip in confidence can have significant effects. Between the agro-food sector and the farming sector, there are about 10 million employees in Europe. High levels of confidence are necessary to boost job numbers and competitiveness. Confidence and predictability are also essential elements to boost trade.

The public's demands and expectations have never been higher and confidence is very fragile. We have one of the best informed, discerning and sophisticated group of consumers in the world. My intention is to ensure that they can believe in the rules, administrations and systems we have put in place to guarantee the safety of the European food supply.

I wish the CIAA every success with your conference on the proposal for general food law and the establishment of the European Food Authority. I am looking forward to working with the food industry, as with other stakeholders in the delicate matter of re-establishing consumer confidence.

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

 
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