CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY.

 

Good afternoon Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to join you for your Annual Conference.

This afternoon, I would like to give my personal assessment of the evolution of our European food laws and to comment on the challenge to ensure safe and healthy food for all European citizens.

As you know, as a Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, I take a great deal of pride in our European food safety system which was constructed in the early years of the millennium.

It finds its direct origin in the aftermath of the damaging food crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s.

Those days may seem long ago – but we all remember the damages caused by Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) or Dioxin.

Consequences were large, not least on trust in our food and the integrity of our food supply chains and most importantly on human lives.

We learnt the lessons from the past. Our European food safety system was carefully built to ensure these damages do not repeat again. And we were successful.

Today, the Union can proudly boast of having probably the most comprehensive and stringent system for the management of food risks in the world.  

This does not mean, however, that we can consider food safety as "achieved" - or relax our approach in any way. Crises will inevitably arise from time to time, but we are now much better placed to prevent food safety incidents from arising in the first place.

The main tool we have is the European Union General Food Law. It sets out the fundamental principles of our EU food safety system – including risk analysis principle, the principle of transparency, the protection of consumer interests, and the precautionary principle.

Let me take this occasion to actually remind you what the precautionary principle precisely consists of.  I have indeed realised that it is often referred to but not in very accurate manner.  

According to our Communication from 2000, acting in accordance with the precautionary principle means taking action when you know there is a risk but you cannot assess precisely the level of risk. 

And, as you know, this is very much different from the precautionary approach invoked by many stakeholders to request ban without evidence.

It imposes general obligations such as the responsibility of food operators for placing safe food on the market.

Our General Food Law sets up the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to provide the scientific basis for European Union regulators to take risk management decisions.

It also created the main tools for the management of emergencies and crises including the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed.

Of course, we always need to check if European Union rules are properly working. We have, for this objective, conducted a thorough Fitness Check on the General Food Law to assess whether it is still "fit for purpose". The results of this exercise will be published later this year.

We will notably have to find out whether there are any areas of weakness where we can and should improve - we will in particular assess whether it is adequate to address food sustainability.

The General Food Law has certainly served us well – and continues to do so.

 

Ladies and gentlemen,

This leads me to another part of my address.

Europeans' attitudes and concerns about food have certainly evolved in recent times. We all now expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical way.

More demanding attitudes towards new methods and approaches to food production clash with the need for food systems to evolve and make progress. Not least to produce enough food to feed a growing world population from a finite or even shrinking area of agricultural land.

In addition we all face the need to become more sustainable; to contribute to climate change efforts; to a circular economy; and also to reduce food waste.

These objectives cannot be met without taking a positive, forward-looking approach to food production.

We need to address the widely held suspicion and mistrust towards science and evidence-based decisions on new food products; on substances; and on new methods of food production.

The main question is: how can we inspire confidence in carefully and meticulously considered scientific assessments, when many people are more likely to pay attention to an emotional campaign conducted via social media?

Let me take the example of pesticides. Plant protection products that are safe, efficient and used in a sustainable manner contribute to the production of safe and healthy food.

Our EU approval system for pesticides is probably the strictest in the world. Our legislation requires applicants for the approval of a pesticide to prove – with an extensive amount of data – that their products are safe for humans and animals, and for the environment.

The stringent action taken on several neonicotinoids due to their adverse effects on bees is an excellent example of where our regulatory system reacted quickly to new scientific evidence.

Our approach is sensible and measured - and it seeks to come to a balanced conclusion based on science.  

And I plead that we should always be consistent.  Indeed, if we believe that action should be based on scientific assessments, we should accept their outcomes even if they are in contradiction with our beliefs or preferences.   

In most of these science-related issues, people tend to look for "black or white" answers where almost always a degree of "grey" – of uncertainty – is inevitable. 

Such uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people's minds and can be exploited by the media to sensationally highlight certain risks, or latched on to by stakeholders or pressure groups trying to force a pre-determined position.

In response, we must recognise – and get the message across – that a certain degree of risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of every decision we take. We need to engage people in a serious and rational debate.

But in this world of information overload – from old and new media – information, misinformation, opinions, prejudices, truths, half-truths and un-truths all compete for public attention. 

We clearly need better communication of science. I believe that people should be better informed about issues and risks. There is obvious room for improvement when it comes to the communication not only of risk assessment, but also of risk management decisions. 

So far so good you will tell me? Well, but what about the expectations of European citizens – of the European consumers? 

While fifteen or twenty years ago safety would have been the key concern for many people, matters have moved on since then, with other factors coming ever more to the fore. 

People expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical manner. And they are sending us sometimes very contradicting signals.

The EU's role goes indeed further than simply ensuring that food is safe. The food that we eat – in terms of composition, quality and quantity – strongly influences our health.

I am proud to announce that we have responded to these demands on a number of fronts.

Let me take nutrition, for instance. This is at the centre of attention from all Europeans.  Each of us, every single day we talk with our friends or families about what we eat, the way we eat it, including how much we ate.

Nutrition talks are one of our main concerns - and this is also reflected in the media.

Unbalanced diets are a major risk factor for overweight and obesity, the health consequences of which are hard to overstate – diabetes, hypertension, heart disease and cancer.

So there is a clear need for better diets, and this need has created the basis for a broader European Union's nutrition policy under which a series of actions has been developed, legislative and non-legislative.

But nutrition is not a consensual territory.  On the legislative side, you are all aware of the difficulties in implementing the Regulation on health and nutrition claims.

This Law sets the legal framework for food companies that want to underline particular beneficial properties of their products in relation to health and nutrition. 

These rules are designed to help consumers to make healthier choices.

Any nutrition or health claim made on a food label or advertising in the European Union must be clear, accurate and based on scientific evidence.

You will remember that last December saw the introduction of mandatory nutrition labelling – This was a major landmark in the EU nutrition policy. 

Of course, we also have voluntary labelling tools, for instance on the front pack of food products. On this, I would like to take this opportunity to inform you that I intend to present a report towards the end of this year on the different schemes.

As we speak about information to consumers, let me also inform you that last Monday we adopted a report on the mandatory labelling of the list of ingredients and the nutrition declaration for alcoholic beverages.

This report recognises the right of consumers to be fully informed about what they drink and has not identified any objective grounds justifying the absence of such information on alcoholic beverages.

This is why we have decided to invite the alcoholic beverages' industry to develop, within a year, a self-regulatory concerted proposal.

This proposal should aim to provide the list of ingredients and nutrition information on all alcoholic beverages.

Let me add here that I am committed to establishing limits on trans-fats, as so they increase the risk of heart disease more than any other nutrient.

A year ago, we concluded in a report that setting an EU-wide legal limit for industrially produced trans-fats would appear to be the most effective solution.

In line with Better Regulation principles, the Commission is now conducting an Impact Assessment. I hope to be able to act quickly on this.

Another main issue linked to nutrition is, on the non-legislative side, the reformulation of processed foods. It can help address excessive intakes of energy, saturated fat, sugars and salt in our diets.

On this, we are cooperating with food manufacturers and Member States with a view to improving the overall nutritional quality of processed foods, and of course, to drawing the attention on reformulation issues. We need a stronger EU nutrition policy

In many EU countries, the average salt content in bread has been gradually lowered in recent years.  Another example is last year's agreement to reduce added sugars by 10%.

Member States have recently agreed on a monitoring system for national reformulation initiatives – an important milestone and a concrete step to support national action.

I believe these efforts will ultimately benefit citizens each time they shop at the supermarket.

On acrylamide, I know you have been discussing this issue earlier today.  Our objective is to reduce its presence in food through a code of conduct and to introduce limits for specific products like cereals or coffee.

A constant challenge is to find the best way to continue to empower European Union's consumers to improve their health. In other words, to place them comfortably in the driving seat.

To enable citizens to choose healthy diets they must be able to have easy and affordable access to safe and nutritious food.

For that, we need to look at how the time from farm to fork and to ensure fresh food and diverse diet.

 

Ladies and Gentlemen,

If we can successfully combine the efforts of scientists, regulators and industry, we can make the healthy option the easy option.

In other words, by ensuring safe and healthy food for all consumers, we will help improving health of the European citizens.

Thank you for your attention.