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Corfu, 13 May 2003

Commissioner Byrne: promoting food safety and diversity throughout an enlarged EU

During the informal meeting of agriculture ministers today, Commissioner David Byrne spoke about his ongoing commitment to setting high food safety standards while at the same time allowing for the flexibility necessary to ensure the viability of traditional products and small food producers. While "food quality" is part of classical agricultural policies, there are many aspects of food safety policy that touch on diversity and issues relating to the production of quality food. In addition, food safety legislation at the EU level includes the important qualitative task of ensuring that consumers are able to make informed choices about the foods they purchase.

David Byrne, Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection said today "My primary task is to ensure that food in the EU is safe. But safety is only the starting point. Discerning European consumers increasingly seek out safe but differentiated, high quality products. Real differentiation can be made on the basis of local, regional or geographic characteristics of food. In order to serve consumers and the needs of small-scale producers, the Commission seeks to ensure that its legislation doesn't stifle small, local, traditional food producers." He added, "I welcomed the participation of the ten new Member States in today's meeting. They are continuing to make great efforts in taking on the strict requirements of EU food safety standards. In parallel, the new Member States will of course also enjoy the same rights and opportunities as current Member States in terms of ensuring the viability of traditional foods."

Quality of information

In addition to the basic requirement of safety, today's consumers make a range of demands on the food they purchase. That is why meeting consumers' information needs is also a key aspect of ensuring quality. Food legislation has an important dual role: one the one hand, to provide consumers with a safe supply of foods, and on the other hand, to ensure that foods carry adequate and appropriate information tohelp individuals choose foods and diets that are adapted to their individual needs. The general food law adopted in 2002 aims also to prevent fraudulent or misleading practices in the food industry. In addition, the framework food labelling directive is regularly updated and completed (for example forthcoming improved labelling of allergens) and there is specific food legislation on a range of labelling issues such as meat, GM food and feed as well as forthcoming legislation on nutrition labelling and health claims. Ongoing critical review and assessment is an important aspect of quality assurance.

Looking towards the future, an evaluation of European food labelling legislation is currently underway in order to determine whether and how legislation can be improved to better address the needs and expectations of today's consumers.

Quality of production

The new food hygiene legislation currently going through the legislative process at EU level will contain appropriate flexibility to make the sale of foods produced locally by traditional methods of production easier. The flexibility that is foreseen includes adaptations of the strict hygiene requirements for traditional methods of production, for food businesses situated in remote areas and for certain infrastructure requirements. In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, Member States are best placed to find the appropriate solutions based on the local situation and on the appropriate level of hygiene in these businesses, without compromising the objective of food safety. Member States wanting to apply adaptations will have to inform the Commission and all other EU Member States of the proposed solution. If there are no objections, the adaptations can be applied. A similar logic is developed in the new Commission proposal on hygiene rules for animal feed, where flexibility is foreseen for small producers or remote regions. For example, pet food is excluded from the hygiene rules, as is the trade of small quantities of feed between farmers at the local level.

In addition to the future hygiene rules, existing legislation already takes into account traditional products. An important example can be found in the dairy sector. Most current and future Member States produce some form of traditional cheese, which often includes raw milk, for which production methods may not live up to each EU hygiene requirement in every instance, but for which alternative safe guarantees are foreseen. In order to allow traditional methods of production to continue, flexibility is provided for in the Milk Directive (92/46) regarding for example equipment, materials and premises used for maturing and refining cheeses. Again, the subsidiarity principle states that Member States themselves are best placed to determine these conditions, as long as they do not compromise food safety.

In addition to the specific rules for traditional dairy products, there is a measure of flexibility in the many Directives at EU level that aim to ensure that meat is safe to consume. Specific Articles in these Directives give derogations to small producers selling products at the local level regarding certain aspects of the required structure, infrastructure and equipment (for example the Fresh Meat Directive 64/433). These small producers may not be able to fulfil all the strict EU requirements, sometimes requiring expensive investments. For example, less elaborate facilities for loading and unloading may be allowed since smaller plants will tend to have a faster loading rate. Other Directives contain similar rules, for example in the poultry sector where exemptions exist for small slaughterhouses processing less than 150,000 birds per year. Small producers of rabbit meat may sell fresh meat on a small scale at the local level. Producers of farmed game meat may, due to animal welfare requirements, slaughter the animals on the farm under certain conditions, provided they are then transported quickly and hygienically to a slaughterhouse for further processing. Flexibility in the meat Directives only covers infrastructure requirements all meat producers have to fulfil the hygiene requirements. Generally, the meat is not authorised for sale throughout the EU; such meat is sold locally or on the domestic market.

To ensure that it is not traded outside the domestic market, this food has to be stamped with a mark that is distinct from the mark used for trade with other EU Member States.

Food safety in the new Member States

Many of the flexibilities and derogations mentioned above were developed as part of the process of setting up the EU internal market. At the time, trade within the EU developed from a situation where only a few establishments were approved for trade with other Member States to a situation where all food produced in each Member State had to be approved for sale in all other Member States. Food safety had to be guaranteed while maintaining the unique diversity of European food products.

Similarly, the new Member States are now adapting to meet the strict EU food safety standards while maintaining traditional products. The new Member States have applied for certain products to be classified as "traditional products" in accordance with existing EU Directives so that for example traditional cheeses like Slovak or Polish "Bryndza" and "Oscypek" might possibly benefit from derogations under the Milk Directive (92/46). Furthermore, transitional periods have been granted to allow establishments that currently don't meet EU standards to continue to produce food for the domestic market, even though this food cannot be sold throughout the EU. This food has to be stamped with a special mark to ensure that it is not traded outside the domestic market.

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