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Health and Consumer Protection

Speeches Commissioner Byrne

Speech by David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, Food quality - Informal Agriculture Council meeting in Sweden, Östersund, 10 th April 2001

Margareta and colleagues

I would like again to thank the Presidency for the opportunity this informal meeting affords us to discuss this important topic.

The three key issues highlighted – "Safe, Sustainable and Ethical" – must be central to our whole approach to the food chain, whether in the primary production sector, the food processing sector, the distribution chain, or even at the final preparation and consumption phase.

Many of these issues were discussed at the Presidency conference held in Uppsala in mid-March. I would like to congratulate Margareta for taking up the theme for our meeting today and confronting us all with the challenges for the future.

Colleagues will be aware that Franz and I have launched a Union-wide debate on food quality, safety and production. The themes chosen by the Presidency mirror very many of the issues that have already arisen since we launched our initiative at the beginning of March.

Many of the concerns of our fellow citizens arise because we have had a number of high profile food safety crises over recent years. The BSE crisis highlighted, in particular, that food safety issues transcend borders and need Community-wide public health responses.

Indeed the current Foot and Mouth Disease crisis, even though it is not a public health issue, again brings into sharp relief the need for co-ordinated and concerted action to address the animal health and the economic issues involved.

Every single citizen has a part to play in the drive towards higher food safety standards, better production methods, thereby ensuring higher quality foodstuffs.

But public authorities have a special role to play in this evolving scenario by raising the standard of debate and indeed playing leading roles in the debate.

It is for that very reason that Franz and I have launched our debate. We need to develop common understandings of the issues that people have concerns about and common understandings of how policy responses can be shaped.

We must engage in stimulating the debate and leading the debate. Gathering key players together throughout the Community and teasing out the real issues as opposed to more populist impressions about what the real issues might be.

The Presidency Working Paper rightly points to some of the pertinent issues.

In the primary production sector you identify the many faces of European agriculture. Sometimes in the welter of criticism that can be directed towards the sector, the impression is given, erroneously, that we have a static, monolithic primary production sector. Nothing could be further from the truth. We should be justifiably proud to have the richest and most varied agriculture systems in the world. We should applaud that and seek to support it in the most appropriate ways.

And yet we must not shy away from critical and constructive approaches to reviewing aspects of our agricultural model that are sources of concern. That is our collective responsibility and duty.

But we must come to that task without baggage and with inclusion. We must not rush to hasty judgments withour evaluating all of the issues and options.

We have an agricultural system that has developed over many years and in the light of a variety of forces at local, regional and global levels. It would, metaphorically speaking, be entirely inappropriate to throw the baby out with the bath water on the altar of ad hoc reform.

Clearly in a crisis situation, people will make all sorts of claims and make simplistic suggestions for changing policies on what are often the most complicated areas. The issue of vaccinations against foot and mouth disease is just one topical example.

Others are suggesting complete bans on animal transport. Certainly this is an area that we have to look at from the points of view of animal welfare, meat quality and the spreading of disease. That is undeniable, but we must also have a sense of proportion in how we approach these matters. Sustainable agriculture is fundamental to the European economy as a whole and to the individual economies of our Member States. Put another way, if a problem emerged with the safety of motor cars, we would not call for a ban on motor transport. Rather we would look for pragmatic safety solutions. And we must adopt a similar attitude in respect of agriculture reform.

These are the kinds of issues that we wist to reflect upon during our food quality debate.

We kicked it off by way of a high level round table with leading food producers, retailers, consumer experts and scientists. We now intend to follow this up with similar round tables in the Member States. We already have two such events programmed for Berlin on June 7 th and for Paris on July 11 th. I look forward to these and others in bringing our debate forward towards shaping common policies for the future.

We will also reach out to our citizens directly in an internet-chat on June 6 th next, focused specifically on food quality and production issues.

There are two other issues that I would like to draw out in this whole debate. One concerns the relationships between price and quality. This is a key consumer issue. The other relates to how consumer interests and preferences are communicated back up the production chain, ultimately to the farmer.

The issues involved here are complex and multi-faceted. I suspect that they have never been adequately teased out in public policy terms; so we are charting unexplored territory. That makes our journey all the more exciting and potentially rewarding.

Allow me to say a final word about food safety and, in particular, about the draft regulation for a general food law and the establishment of the European Food Authority. In doing so, let me pay tribute to the sterling work being carried out by the Presidency in chairing the Friends of the Presidency Group working on this matter. Great progress is being made and I am pleased that the Presidency has scheduled even more meetings of the Group to accelerate progress. I am increasingly optimistic that the Council will be able to reach political agreement on this vital piece of legislation before the end of June. This is absolutely critical if we are all to live up to my own desire and that of the Heads of State and Government to have the Food Authority up and running from early next year.


Speeches Commissioner Byrne



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