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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

UNDER EMBARGO until March 15, 17.00 hours

Address by David BYRNE, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, on the occasion of the European Consumer Day March 15, 2001.

"Food Quality in Europe" Conference, Brussels, March 15, 2001

The theme of this year’s European Consumer Day "Food Quality", is one that has preoccupied my colleague Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler and myself for some time now. We have come to the conclusion that food safety is an intrinsic part of food quality.

European consumers will settle for no less than safe food – and they are right. But they expect the food that they eat and feed to their children to be more than just safe. Consumers expect food to meet their nutritional needs, to be wholesome and tasty. They expect to be able to choose amongst a wide variety of foods. They expect their food to be produced and processed in accordance with good farming practices, with greater respect for the environment and for the welfare of animals. And they expect to be informed, in a precise and accurate manner, about the composition, the nutritional value, the durability, the origin, and, in certain cases, the method of production of the food offered to them.

As we enter the 21 st century, the challenges facing the European food supply are constantly changing. We eat a greater variety of foods throughout the year, not only from all over the European Union, but from all around the world. We value the extraordinarily fine food culture of our European nations and we are eager to discover different foods coming from the equally rich food cultures of other Continents.

We eat more and more food prepared outside our own homes. We witness – sometimes sceptically - how technology is increasingly being used to make foods safer, more nutritious or more palatable. And we cherish the regional culinary traditions that we have inherited from our parents and grand-parents.

It is important that Europe allows all the richness and diversity of foods to be preserved and developed. I am very sensitive to this aspect, and as much as I think that general safety rules should be laid out to ensure the same protection and confidence for consumers throughout Europe, I believe that Member States should decide on how best to achieve this at local level. We need flexible rules for products produced and consumed locally. In this way, local markets and traditions will be preserved. Europe is in fact encouraging local markets!

I do not see why we should not be able to meet these various aspirations of European consumers. I do not believe there needs to be a contradiction between our demand for quality products, at affordable prices, and our quest for a high level of food safety. We can reap the benefits of technical progress, improve the protection of our environment, and not give up any of our extraordinary food traditions.

When we look at these three interwoven components of good food, that is safety, quality and nutrition, we can see how they become equally keys to production and consumption. I have taken the initiative, together with my colleague responsible for agriculture, Commissioner Franz Fischler, to start a debate on food quality, safety and production. We have just organised a first round table on the issue. We are planning to hold a stakeholders conference to examine the issues involved in more detail and would welcome all inputs into this reflection process.

This is the way I would like to see us move forward in Europe - towards a more sustainable way of producing and consuming food.

I am convinced that the key to meeting those ambitions is to take an integrated approach to food production. One that would place a greater emphasis on quality, within an integrated and comprehensive approach to the entire food chain. One that is uncompromising on safety. One which would give consumers the choice. One that would take into account that eating should be a pleasure and should also be wholesome. And that it should be conducive to our overall good health and well being. This is what I believe the consumer has a right to expect.

While the European food supply is amongst the safest in the World, we can always do more. We need to take an integrated approach to all food safety matters. An integrated approach involves looking at food production from the way crops are grown in the field, to the health and welfare of animals and the way that food products are prepared and packaged. This also means checks that reach all the way through the food chain right to the point where food reaches the consumer – and back again - through traceability.

In my White Paper on Food Safety, adopted by the Commission last year, an Action Plan was put forward. These actions operate from the kind of comprehensive, integrated approach I have been speaking of. In the context of the White Paper Action Plan, the integrated approach applies specifically to food safety. Food safety is our over-riding concern and a priority for the Commission.

However, no matter how great our fears or how frequently a crisis emerges, we must not fall into the trap of dealing with food safety as a series of one-off actions. Of course, each and every crisis must be confronted and dealt with to the best of our ability.

My Directorate-General for Health and Consumer Protection and our scientific advisers are pulling out all the stops to deal with the evolving BSE situation. As you know, we have initiated a series of highly precautionary measures in the last weeks, to control and halt the spread of BSE, together with the Member State authorities. I will also shortly be proposing a strategy in combating major food-borne risks such as listeria.

My heart goes out to all those whose lives have been overturned in one way or another by these terrible food crises. You should be assured that we will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to work together with the Member States and all concerned to deal with them.

Our vigilance must continue to operate at a high level, across the whole food chain, even in the midst of a crisis.

The drive towards overcoming the weaknesses of the past, placing food safety firmly at the top of the EU agenda, is most evident in our Proposal establishing the European Food Authority and laying down procedures in matters of food. This proposal is the cornerstone of our new food safety policy.

I expect the European Food Authority to be up and running in the course of the next year. The European Food Authority will provide an authoritative body of expertise to the European Food Safety System. It will become the foremost scientific body of expertise in the world on food safety. The European Food Authority will also follow an integrated approach to food safety by having a scientific overview on all matters directly or indirectly affecting the safety of the food supply – from farm to fork.

Let me finally address your specific role as consumers. Better legislation, the future European Food Authority and improved inspections from regulators will not, by themselves, ensure safe and nutritious food on Europe’s tables. Consumers need to be able to understand labels, to choose foods from the shelves in an informed way and to handle food properly once they take it home. Depending on how consumers shop, store and prepare food at home, its quality and safety will be preserved or will deteriorate, as a number of potentially dangerous food handling errors can occur.

Consumers themselves are the final critical link in the prevention of food borne risks. When they are in a position to make informed choices, they become key actors in any food quality policy. This is where education programs and campaigns come into their own – and events such as those now taking place all over Europe to mark this occasion.

It was very appropriate to select "Food quality" as a theme for this year’s European Consumer Day and I am grateful to have been given this opportunity to address you on this subject.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne