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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

General Food Safety Strategy, European Food Authority

Assemblée Nationale

Paris, 9 November 2000

I am delighted to be here in the National Assembly in Paris today. It is indeed a great honour for me to be invited to address this important conference on a subject, which is, for me, both fascinating and challenging, and that is the safety of the European food supply.

I am especially pleased to have the opportunity to outline to you the initiatives we have taken over the past few months to meet the ambitious programme we have established in the Commission's White Paper on Food Safety, and in particular, the announcement we made yesterday on the proposal for a Regulation laying down the principles and requirements of food law and the establishment of a European Food Authority.

You will only be too aware of the waves of public mistrust that have developed as a result of some of the recent food scares. I won't dwell on these but the Commission is a "Learning Organisation" and we have and are continuing to put in place real actions to address these problems.

The consumer in Europe has the right to expect the safest food supply in the world and our ambition is to develop a system that delivers this.

Consumer confidence and the confidence of trading partners is key to the success of the food industry in Europe and in the global market place. A safe food chain from farm to fork, correctly regulated and effectively controlled is the road to building this confidence in the European food supply.

The White Paper identified that not only were consumers losing confidence in the safety of food but also in the food law itself and the institutions, organisations and structures developing food law. It identified a growing need for robust, excellent and timely scientific advice. It considered that the present arrangements for the provision of scientific advice to the Commission are stretched to the full. To provide the basis for a modern, dynamic and effective legal framework significant administrative changes were identified to meet the scientific need.

For this reason the White Paper proposes that a European Food Authority be created with sufficient resources and facilities to meet the needs of the legislative programme, to re-establish consumer confidence and to provide the authoritative voice on food safety in the Community. The Parliament and those who responded to the consultation on the White Paper have all supported the basic principle that a European Food Authority be established.

Proposed Regulation for a General Food Law and the establishment of a European Food Authority

Yesterday the Commission adopted a proposal laying down the general principles and requirements of food law, establishing a European Food Authority, and laying down procedures in matter of food safety.

As Commissioner responsible for policy in this area I was delighted that the Commission was able to adopt such a far-reaching and comprehensive proposal so quickly.

The proposal contains concrete measures aimed at the re-establishment of consumer confidence in the safety of the European food supply and the tools needed in the 21st century to ensure safe food.

The proposal provides for a modern, dynamic and effective legal framework for food safety, based on robust science and to support this, the correct administrative structures where consumer health is the driving force.

The Regulation lays down the legitimate objectives and definitions of food law with the primary aim being to ensure a high level of health protection while ensuring the effective functioning of the single market. It outlines the commitment to ensure that food law shall be based on high quality, transparent, independent scientific advice. Most importantly it provides an overarching requirement for only safe food to be placed on the market and ensure the rights of individuals to have access to safe food only.

One of the key aspects of this Regulation is that the traceability of foods, and their ingredients shall be ensured through all parts of the food producing chain.

The European Food Authority is created by this Regulation to provide the scientific risk assessment on all matters relating either directly or indirectly to food safety. It will also have strong risk communication responsibilities enabling it to communicate directly to the public on food safety matters.

The broad mandate we have proposed will enable the Food Authority to have an overview of the food chain and provide a coherent scientific basis for the Community's policy and legislation in this area. The Commission considers that this flexible approach ensures the best use of scarce resources and avoids wasteful and confusing duplication of scientific evaluations.

The rapid alert system will also be operated by the Authority, which will collaborate with the Commission in the management of crises in the food and feed sector.

The proposed organisational structures will facilitate the involvement of the Authority's many and diverse stakeholders, independence from external pressures, transparency and accountability to the democratic institutions.

The Authority will include an Advisory Forum comprising representatives of the analogous Member States' bodies. The Authority will provide the central co-ordination for the efforts and resources of the food authorities and agencies in the Member States through active networks, providing the central hub to such networks.

Let me now come back to the overall Commission food safety strategy for the coming years, and more specifically to the action plan contained in the White Paper on Food Safety.

White Paper on Food Safety- Action Plan

The White Paper on food safety sets out a major and ambitious programme of legislative reforms to complete the EU's farm-to-table policy approach.

Taken together with the proposals to establish a European Food Authority, the programme will make a major contribution to the restoration and maintenance of consumer confidence in food safety.

Since the adoption of the White Paper, the Commission has already made several proposals, which are now under discussion in Council and Parliament.

The major ones are the recast of the hygiene legislation, a Decision on the removal of specified risk materials, Decisions for pesticide active substances, Directives fixing pesticide maximum residue levels in foods, Directive on the marketing of compound foodstuffs, official inspections in the field of animal nutrition, Directive on food supplements, Regulation on the monitoring of pesticide residues in foods, and a proposal for amending Directives on Animal Waste and derived products.

Many other proposals, all driven by the will to ensure that food, which is put on the market is safe, are in the Commission's pipeline.

As you can see the Commission has been active in trying to put into place the programme identified in the White Paper. I am pleased to be responsible for this area at this challenging time and I intend to continue to pursue the objective of ensuring that European citizens have access to the safest food supply in the world, and rightly have confidence in the principles on which we develop our policies and the institutions monitoring and controlling food safety.

Clearly, no discussion on food safety can avoid the issue of BSE. My visit to Paris coincides with a public outcry in France over the level of BSE in your country and the consequent threat to health. I am very conscious of the huge public concern at the extent of the disease in your cattle herd. It is our responsibility at both the national and the Community level to take that concern very seriously.

The figures must be looked at from a number of perspectives. The current higher incidence amounts to about 7 cases per million bovines aged over 2 years. This compares with the internationally recognised level of 100 cases per million for high incidence Member States. In addition, this higher level also results from much improved surveillance, including random tests. To put in bluntly, if you look, you will find. France is actively looking and your public should take reassurance from this responsible approach.

No dossier has taken up more of my time than BSE. And one of the major lessons I have learned is that we the political establishment must be fully transparent with the public on the issue. There must be no hidden agendas. No distortions. No false assurances. Transparency, information and open dialogue must guide our actions.

The moment the public suspect that the facts are being hidden from them or being distorted is when we have lost their trust. And their trust on a such a sensitive issue as BSE will he very difficult to regain. We must make known the risks and the protective measures which we have introduced to tackle those risks. Consumers can then decide, for themselves, whether they are prepared to accept our assurances that their health is not at risk.

Clearly, a lot of mistakes were made in the handling of BSE in the past. But, I am convinced that we have learned from these mistakes. At the Community level, we have put in place a comprehensive series of controls which I am satisfied reduce the risk of a very low level. Let me briefly mention some of these controls:

  • The ban on the feeding of mammalian meat and bone meal to ruminants;

  • The much higher standards for the rendering of animal waste;

  • The requirement to remove and destroy specified risk materials;

  • The active surveillance measures to detect cases of BSE, including the introduction of random tests.

The level of controls now applying are a huge improvement on the situation which existed even as recently as last year. These controls are all based on open and transparent scientific advice. Let me, however, add one very important qualification. They can only work if they are rigorously implemented. There is no room for complacency or for shortcuts. Member States must accept their responsibility to ensure that these controls are implemented strictly.

A number of measures are under discussion in France right now to further reduce the risk from BSE. These must be based on open and transparent scientific advice if they are to be credible. The Commission, for its part, will ensure that any new proposals are considered and evaluated by the its Scientific Steering Committee.

Je suis très heureux d'être parmi vous.

Je vous remercie de votre attention.

Je serai très heureux à present de répondre à vos questions (en anglais!)

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