Brussels, 13 May 2002
Fischler and Byrne Final Round Table on Agriculture and Food
Today Commissioners David Byrne for Health and Consumer Protection and Franz Fischler for Agriculture, Rural Development and Fisheries concluded a year-long process of strategic dialogue on agriculture and food policy in Europe. At the final Round Table on Agriculture and Food in Brussels, both Commissioners summarised the issues discussed over the past year and, with the assistance of a distinguished panel of international experts, presented a range of ideas that would assist the development of agriculture and food policy in the years ahead. "Developing an integrated approach to quality at all the stages of farming and of food production and a consumer focus on quality were the over-arching themes of our year long dialogue. The challenge for us is now to turn that into policy, legislation and reality," Byrne and Fischler commented. Clearly the lessons learned from the Round Table process will feed into policy reorientation in the field of agriculture, food policy and in the way stakeholder information and consultation is dealt with. Concretely, suggestions could be considered in the perspective of the Mid-Term Review of the Common Agricultural Policy, the Rural Development Policies and the implementation of the White Paper on Food Safety. "Clear and unambiguous consumer information are essential to informed consumer choice and this message came across very clearly during our Round Tables. Policy and legislation will be developed to give effect to this clear consumer message. Quality and value for money should go hand in hand,," said David Byrne, Consumer Commissioner.
"I believe we could learn from this exercise that we need the whole food chain and its stakeholders to assist and support farmers to develop quality production. It would be a challenge to envisage under rural development policies schemes which give incentives to quality production," said Agriculture Commissioner Franz Fischler.
A major outcome of the year-long process was that there were many facets towards defining a quality standards. Clearly, the Commissioners emphasised that there were non-negotiable elements of quality food safety was the bedrock of quality. However, other aspects, like taste, appearance, availability, price, affordability and so on were largely matters for the market place to decide. Of crucial importance was the issue of transparency of information in order to facilitate informed choice by consumers.
An holistic "from farm to fork" approach was the basis of all the Round Table discussions and at the same time it was successful in involving representatives from the whole food chain in the debate.
As a result of the Round Table process, concrete actions could be considered and envisaged under the following three headings:
Agriculture is the very basis of the food chain. But it is more than this and that should be taken into consideration if we want to fully understand and integrate agriculture in a food chain which delivers quality at every stage. First, it is working with natural cycles. Second, it covers more than half to the EU territory. This means visibility to citizens which goes far beyond the economic weight of agriculture itself. And since most of the valuable landscapes and semi-natural habitats bear a farming heritage, their preservation requires an active role of agriculture as a steward of the countryside. Third, agriculture's exposure to natural circumstances and varying whether conditions results in high yield risks and price volatility being an important reason for policy interventions.
The concept of multifunctionality reflects important characteristics of European agriculture and as well as reflecting society's expectations: Agriculture as an economic sector must be versatile, sustainable, competitive and spread throughout Europe. It must be capable of maintaining the countryside, conserving nature and making a key contribution to the vitality of rural areas. For these reasons, multifunctionality encompasses legitimate policy aims necessary to provide the rural environment and agriculture that Europeans want. The objective is therefore to implement measures which allow our agriculture to fulfil its roles, to the greatest extent possible, through minimally trade-distorting means. Nevertheless, the competitiveness of the European agri-food sector was considered to be essential. Innovation and research and development were indispensable components of a dynamic, competitive sector.
Reinforcing Rural Development Policies, the second pillar of the Common Agriculture Policy, was pointed out as a top priority in the Round Table Process. It is in first line the rural development policies, which in many respects, provide the instruments, which yield necessary, durable solutions. In many discussions in the Member States, but also at the Final Round Table, it was stressed that still more could be done here. While farmers under the Rural Development policies are assisted in implementing environmental schemes, similar schemes could be envisaged in the field of stimulating quality standards and incentives. They would go hand in hand with organic farming, enhance multifunctionality and support small and traditional farmers and producers in business initiatives.
The final Round Table again emphasised the need for sustainable agriculture - socially, economically and environmentally - with due regard to animal welfare standards.
The real issue here is one of consumer confidence in the ability of the whole food chain, including public regulators, to satisfy public demand for safe, quality food.
One of the main conclusions was that the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority was a major priority and one of the means towards restoring consumer confidence.
In addition, the completion as speedily as possible of the action plan in the White Paper on Food Safety was also seen as particularly important. Transparency in all aspects of the food chain was considered as a sine qua non to underscore consumer confidence.
A harmonised approach to food law was seen as important to the effective operation of the Internal Market from the point of view of both business and consumers.
Consumers nowadays expect and actually request more and better information on their food. This information is usually conveyed through labelling, both on a mandatory and a voluntary basis. At the same time, labelling is becoming more and more complicated and unclear, making it more difficult for consumers to find, read and understand information, and leading to greater difficulties in enforcement and control of the labelling provisions.
It is the intention of the Commission, in close co-operation with representatives of the Member States, consumers, industry and retail, to engage in an evaluation of the labelling legislation with a view to modernising and possibly simplifying it. This effort, focussed primarily on the adequacy and consistency of the existing provisions with the objectives of labelling, will also include a review of the opportunity of: complementing existing provisions on origin labelling and nutritional labelling, improving the overall clarity of labelling, and providing information through alternative means of information.
Arising from comments and discussions during the Round Table process, it was proposed that a more comprehensive approach to legislation on various types of "food claims" be adopted. In this regard, the Commission intends to prepare a legislative proposal to cover "nutrition claims", "functional claims" and "health claims". Further consultation on this initiative will be undertaken with stakeholders.
Dialogue during the Round Tables also focused on the addition of nutrients to foods.
Foods with added nutrients are attracting more and more interest to consumers and to an industry that wants to offer innovative products. Consumers are increasingly conscious of the importance of nutrition for overall well being and the specific role of certain nutrients. These interests need to be considered and it must be ensured that products marketed with added nutrients offer plausible benefits to the consumer in the context of a varied diet. Legislation will be developed in this area, again with further consultation on the way towards its finalisation.
Another area that attracted attention during the year-long dialogue was novel foods and food processes. The Commission proposes to issue a consultation paper on this issue in the near future. Food policy and legislation also need to support and encourage other forms of innovation in the agri-food sector, including artisanal production, biotechnology, organic farming and sustainable developments.
Information and Consultation
The Commission wishes to further develop stakeholder dialogue, both as regards a new structure for formal consultation and maintaining existing direct lines of communication with the food industry.
In the framework of European governance the Commission is placing great emphasis on the consultation and involvement of concerned parties in the development and follow-up of EU policies. This will assist in assessing the need for particular legislation in any given area.
The need for maintaining and strengthening the Commission mechanisms for dialogue with the agricultural, industrial, and distribution sectors, as well as with consumers, has, in particular, been underlined during the Round Tables on agriculture and food.
In this regard, the Commission will propose in the near future the reorganisation of the old consultative committees in the area of foodstuffs and veterinary matters. The new Consultative Committee will cover all matters related to food safety and will ensure a well structured and comprehensive dialogue and consultation with all sectors responsible of the various parts of the food chain
There were many views expressed about how the Round Table dialogue itself should be taken forward. Many proposals have been advanced as to how to improve consultation in the food chain. Certainly the Consultative Committee will assist significantly.
Private partnerships should be encouraged between the various actors in the food chain to step up collaboration among themselves and with consumers. In addition, we consider that more regular discussions by the EU's Consumer Committee on food related matters would be helpful. We are open to the suggestion that a Round Table on Agriculture and Food, organised by the Commission, should meet periodically, say every two years, to consider developments and encourage progress as appropriate.
The Round Tables discussed the issues surrounding local, regional and global food production systems and their impact on relations between producers and consumers. The objective of the discussions was to identify issues requiring further investigation and debate. Among the issues they analysed were the driving forces behind consumer and producer behaviour in terms of price versus quality, and the increasing emphasis on ethical values such as the environment, animal health and welfare, and social responsibility.
The following actions took place over the past year:
Food quality was also the key theme of European Consumer Day on 15th March 2002 and consumer organisations throughout Europe used this opportunity to debate and promote the quality agenda.