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SPEECH/01/604

David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Opening Remarks

Round Table on Food Quality, Safety and Production

Copenhagen, 3 December 2001

It is a pleasure to visit Copenhagen, and particularly so to come here to have this discussion with such a distinguished panel at this morning's Round Table on Food Quality, Food Safety and Food Production.

Allow me to express my appreciation, and that of the European Commission as a whole, for giving of your time and expertise to participate in this Round Table.

Franz Fischler and I have taken the initiative of hosting these Round Tables in the Member Sates to consult representatives of farmers, industry, retailers, scientists, academics and, especially, consumers. We want to get broadly-based views on food quality, safety and production.

These views will feed into our policy development in such diverse areas as the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy and new legislation on labelling.

Our approach is novel in European terms and reflects the Commission's developing thinking on governance within the Union.

Quite frankly, it would have been much easier to hold one, big conference in Brussels to discuss these issues. But Franz and I wanted to get away from the predictability and formality of such an approach. We want to get direct input from stakeholders in each Member State in a confidential, Round Table, format.

The European Union has been under the microscope for some years in relation to food production issues. BSE has, notably, put enormous pressure on the agricultural sector generally, and related food production and distribution sectors.

This situation has replicated itself in almost all European countries, with BSE itself, not to mention dioxin, sewage sludge in animal feed, contamination of olive residue oil in Spain, to mention just a few of the scandals that have been to the fore. Denmark's own attitude to BSE was transformed radically after the first case was discovered here.

We must put systems in place to ensure as far as humanly possible that we are not confronted with similar, or worse, episodes in the years ahead.

Shortly into our mandate, the Commission published our White Paper on Food Safety. This is our blueprint for concrete action on food safety over the coming years.

It included our ideas for the establishment of a European Food Authority. The enabling legislation to create the Authority has almost been finalised by the Council and the European Parliament.

It is my firm desire that the Authority can be up and running as quickly as possible in 2002.

But while my agenda has been heavily charged with safety issues looking to the future with the Authority, or looking after the present with new legislation to cope with the BSE crisis I have also commenced to look at wider issues of quality and production in the food chain.

But our consumers are increasingly concerned with perhaps less tangible issues than safety. They expect safe food.

They demand that food processors deliver on this. And they expect public authorities, at local, regional, national and European level to make sure that the inspection and audit of safety systems are carried out to exacting standards.

Consumers are now as much, or more, concerned with quality, taste, appearance, nutritional value and ethical values in regard to food. They demand more and more variety.

They expect food to be produced and processed in accordance with good farming practices, with greater respect for the environment and for the welfare of food producing animals.

Modern methods of production of food have brought new worries to the eyes of consumers.

During the Foot and Mouth Disease crisis, people witnessed the very fast spread of the disease across large distances. While no threat to public health was involved, consumers began to wonder about the need for such large-scale transport of animals.

Many were made aware for the first time that this was a facet of our food production system. People are now questioning the need for large-scale transport of animals, not to mention highly intensive farming practices.

People are also increasingly aware that the "footprint" of modern agro-food production is very large in terms of its impact on the environment. They are asking how more sustainable methods can be developed, promoted and introduced.

These types of concerns are evidently developing. But equally, there are segments of the consumer population who are more concerned about the price they pay for food than with broader questions.

How are their concerns for cheap food to be met if quality standards are to be driven up at significant cost? Or is there a trade off between higher quality standards and retail demand? How can people tell if one product is better quality then the next? Or, are consumers dependent on price alone as a determinant of quality?

These are, I believe, crucial questions and crucial issues for the development of this debate. These are important issues for producers, distributors and retailers. But, they are also choices for society as a whole.

That is why, for example, we have posed the questions:

  • What are the dimensions of quality food produce and how does quality relate to price?

  • Does the food-retailing sector satisfy consumer demand for safe, quality food?

    With all of these questions hanging in the air, the Commission sought the views of our citizens through the Eurobarometer opinion poll service. In the latest survey of Eurobarometer from June, our citizens were asked, "What should the European Union use its agricultural policy for?"

    Let us take a look at the answers, ranked by priority:

    • 90% of the European citizens want the EU to ensure that agricultural products are healthy and safe. This is no surprise given that the survey was carried out shortly after the outbreak of the second BSE-crisis.

    • 89% say that we should promote the respect of the environment.

    • 82% of the citizens want us to protect small sized farms.

    • 81% of the citizens expect the EU and its producers to adapt production to consumer's expectations.

    • 78% want the EU to make European agriculture more competitive on world markets, and

    • 75% of European citizens want the EU to encourage the diversification of agricultural products and to favour organic production.

    As you can see, the concerns of European citizens are hard to reconcile. A more market orientation may conflict with enhancing farmers' incomes. And environmental or animal welfare standards might not be compatible with the need to reduce retail-level costs.

    This survey gives us "food for thought", so to speak. It is another contribution to the ongoing quality debate.

    I am very pleased that there is a debate underway across Europe about the extent to which our systems of agricultural production and food production contribute to, or mitigate against, higher quality foodstuffs on consumers plates.

    There is a welcome realisation that quantity has, in the past, been given undue weight by comparison with quality.

    Reforms are underway to correct this imbalance. In our recent policy sustainable development, the Commission decided that the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy next year should reward quality rather than quantity.

    We have suggested that this could be done, for example, by encouraging the organic sector or other environmentally-friendly farming methods, and a further shift in support from market supports towards rural development.

    This debate on food quality, safety and production that we are promoting will gather pace over the next year or so. No doubt we will hear loudly from producer interests.

    But centre stage must be consumer interests. The interests of consumers must be placed first. Modern agro-food producers can only succeed if that is the case.

    I am anxious to hear your views about these issues. Your thoughts will be a valuable source of inspiration to us as we bring the food quality debate forward. We will be hosting the concluding Round Table in Brussels next Spring to draw all the strands together and, hopefully, draw some valuable lessons.


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