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SPEECH/02/148 Mr David BYRNE European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection Towards a quality-driven single market in foodstuffs CIAA Congress of Food & Drink Industry Brussels, 12 April 2002

European Commission - SPEECH/02/148   12/04/2002

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SPEECH/02/148

Mr David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

Towards a quality-driven single market in foodstuffs

CIAA Congress of Food & Drink Industry

Brussels, 12 April 2002

Introduction

It is a great pleasure for me to address your Congress here today, and to be speaking along with my colleague Franz Fischler. This is fitting since our responsibilities in relation to food production are to a large extent complementary and to a certain extent overlap.

I also welcome the theme for this Congress "Quality for a Confident Consumer". In my view, this strikes exactly the right note. It recognises that the consumer is king or queen, and it places the emphasis firmly on "quality" the pursuit of excellence.

My address to you this morning is entitled "Towards a Quality-Driven Single Market in Foodstuffs".

I will first comment on the current state of affairs as regards consumer confidence in food, explain what the Commission is doing about it notably under the White Paper programme and then move on to how we plan to help create the quality-driven single market to which we all aspire.

Food crises

We all know that consumer confidence in the safety of our food has taken a battering in recent years. This has, largely, been triggered by a wave of high profile food-related crises. BSE is perhaps the most obvious, but by no means the only example. All involved with the food industry have suffered as a result.

So how do we go about putting matters right? How do we put in place a system to deliver the standards of safety our fellow citizens expect? Well the Commission has publicly stated its commitment "to ensure that European consumers have access to the safest possible food supply in the world".

This is no mere whimsical ambition it is not just a simple indication of the direction in which we would like to go. It is a firm statement of intent a top priority.

Raising standards

That commitment is one I am sure we all share. The drive for improved standards of food safety goes beyond the bounds of regulation and control. The businesses you represent have a crucial role to play, as you are ultimately responsible for the safety, and indeed the quality, of the foodstuffs you produce, manufacture or sell.

But to achieve our shared goal of a safe food chain from farm to fork, and to regain the confidence of consumers, a framework of appropriate regulation and control is of paramount importance.

White Paper General Food Law

You are all familiar with the contents of the White Paper on Food Safety. This was adopted just over 2 years ago, and I am pleased that a significant number of positive steps have already been taken.

A whole range of Commission proposals have been made, and are in the legislative process, whether concerning hygiene, feedingstuffs, food supplements or GM foods.

A key step was the adoption in record time of the Regulation on the general principles and requirements of food law; procedures in matters of food safety; and establishing the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).

This is a great step forward. We now need to get the EFSA up and running and we are doing everything we can to ensure this takes place as soon as possible.

It is worth pausing to stress that this is a Regulation, that covers general food law as well as the EFSA. Most previous food law was in the form of Directives, leaving scope for different approaches to transposition. To ensure a uniform application of the rules, and a truly level playing field within the internal market, we proposed a Regulation.

I am delighted that this was accepted, and we now have one of the cornerstones for our future food law firmly in place. Now that this is achieved, we can address a number of eagerly awaited initiatives, and I will return to these a little later.

European Food Safety Authority

I cannot leave this subject, however, without a few more words about EFSA. One of its principal functions will be to provide independent scientific advice.

This advice will form the basis for the risk management decisions taken by the Commission.

The independence of EFSA will be one of its key features. Its transparency and its relationship with the general public will provide visible evidence of its core function to represent the interests of European consumers in matters of food safety.

I am deeply concerned to ensure that EFSA communicates well with the European public. I believe that its success will be at least as dependent on its communication's capacity as on its risk assessment functions. This is a tall order for the Board of the Authority and for its Executive Director and staff.

Poor, inadequate, inaccurate or politically inspired communication on risk is inimical to my endeavours to restore consumer confidence. I am placing a heavy burden on the fledgling EFSA to get this dimension of its work right.

Risk

The issue of "risk" is one in which I take a great interest. It could easily make up an entire speech, and indeed frequently does. I will not go into great detail here today but will simply say that our aim is to minimise risks wherever possible; and to make sure that systems and procedures are in place to deal with any emerging food-related crisis, rapidly and effectively, should one emerge. EFSA will play an important role in delivering that objective.

I can equally say that misguided attempts to elevate risk to disguised trade protectionism cut no ice with me. I can state categorically that my decisions are based solely on grounds of food safety. Everybody, as far as I am concerned, is entitled to fair and just treatment. And that is what I am trying to ensure.

Approach to regulation

I should perhaps just say a few words about my general approach to regulation of food safety. We must ensure that the legislative framework is up to the task of delivering safe food to a single market of over 370 million consumers (and this figure will increase substantially with enlargement).

But I have no desire to swamp the food industry with regulation upon regulation, or to propose legislation for legislation's sake.

My aim is simply to create a modern and flexible system capable of regulating and controlling a highly complex, highly diverse and in many cases highly technologically advanced food industry, with the aim of guaranteeing the maintenance of basic high standards. To promote quality, choice and diversity, underpinned by relevant and effective safeguards.

Traditional Food Businesses

And I must be clear that I have placed particular stress on the need to ensure that there are sufficient safeguards to facilitate the continued existence of the wide range of smaller, more traditional food production processes and businesses.

I am personally committed to this approach. Always, of course, ensuring that basic food hygiene objectives are attained.

I am also committed to supporting the development of a diverse range of food businesses throughout the rural landscape of the European Union.

This is something I believe we can give greater impetus to in our consideration of the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy. I have already spoken to my colleague Franz Fischler about this and I expect to have further discussions with Agriculture Ministers on the topic at the Informal Agriculture Council in Murcia in two weeks time.

Quality

So far, I have not said a great deal about quality per se. The reason is simple: food safety has to be the very foundation upon which a quality-driven single market in foodstuffs can emerge, develop and thrive. A safety first approach.

But European consumers want more than just safe food. They want nutrition, taste and choice. Interest in how food is produced and processed has never been higher. Factors such as good farming practices, environmental concerns and animal welfare issues have risen rapidly up the consumer agenda. These need to be taken into account and fully addressed in our evolving policies.

We need to pursue an integrated and comprehensive approach a holistic and sustainable approach which takes into account all relevant factors and their interdependence with one and other, right across the production chain.

These are a wide range of aspirations. But aspirations, which I am convinced, can be met. Our demand for high quality products at affordable prices is in my view compatible with our demand for high levels of food safety.

A sensible and balanced approach can deliver this objective, along of course with the contribution of producers, manufacturers, and retailers.

You, and the vast array of businesses you represent, are acutely aware that the key to success is to ensure that your products meet the discerning demands of your customers. I hardly need to add that your success depends on giving people what they want, at prices they are willing to pay. I will return later to the Round Table on Food Quality and Agriculture process that Franz Fischler and I have been promoting over the past year.

New initiatives

Before doing so, I would now like to turn to some of the new initiatives that I will be developing in the next few months.

I know, from my contacts with the CIAA and the food industry generally, that these are keenly awaited as they have significant consumer and business implications.

Claims

In the White Paper, I announced a proposal to govern "nutrition claims" and "functional claims". And last year, I published a paper outlining the issues that need to be considered.

Many of the responses to the paper expressed regret that so-called "health claims" were not addressed and called for all types of food claims to be regulated at Community level.

I listened and considered those comments very carefully. It gives me great pleasure to announce to your Congress this morning that I am now preparing a legislative proposal to cover "nutrition claims", "functional claims" and "health claims". A draft proposal should be ready this summer.

Some have argued that, to allow "health claims" (or "disease risk reduction claims" as they are also known), changes to the definitions of 'food' and 'medicinal product' would be necessary or that a change to the Food Labelling Directive would be necessary. I disagree with this view. "Prevention of a disease" and "reduction of the risk factors of a disease" are clearly not the same, and we must be careful to avoid such confusion.

As I said at the World Economic Forum in New York earlier this year, the food-manufacturing sector, both in Europe and globally, is at the forefront of the development of new foods and new manufacturing processes. Some of these have the prospect of contributing significantly to consumer lifestyle and health concerns.

But, as I said then and repeat now, this is an area in which I sense some tension between the pharmaceutical sector and the food sector. Nothing wrong with tension, per se. Competition is generally a good thing. It is the life-blood of economies.

From my perspective, I would not like to see that tension stifling innovation.

At a general level, let me just say that helping people achieve a better, healthier life style is not the exclusive preserve of any one sector. Nor should it be so! All contributions to increasing health, well-being and disease reduction must be welcomed and appropriately regulated as necessary.

This underlies my approach to the issues which fall into this apparently grey area. I look forward to the support of your Association and consumers towards bringing my initiative in this area to a successful conclusion.

The central challenge is to find the best way to successfully convey sophisticated messages to consumers. My view is that it should be possible to legislate to allow "health claims" in the European Union, in such a way as to help consumers make positive, informed decisions in pursuit of a healthy diet.

Fortification

Turning now to another area of interest to you. I am sure that you are pleased, as I am, that the Directive on food supplements is on course for adoption in the Council following a successful second reading in Parliament.

This successful outcome will facilitate my attention to be focused on the addition of nutrients to foods.

Foods with added nutrients are attracting more and more interest, to an industry that wants to offer innovative products. And to more demanding consumers, conscious of the importance of nutrition for overall well being and the specific role of certain nutrients.

We have to reconcile those interests and ensure that products marketed with added nutrients offer plausible benefits to the consumer in the context of a varied diet.

While I do not wish to go into detail here this morning, there are significant policy and technical decisions to be made before I bring forward my proposals. At the policy level, key decisions remain to be taken by me on, for example, the scope of the proposal.

These decisions will relate, in effect to,

  • what will be regulated, and

  • what foods will be covered.

I am conscious that such issues, seemingly innocuous on their surface, arouse passionate, and not always rational debate.

I am counting on an open dialogue with stakeholders, including the food industry, to cast light on these issues so that I can bring forward concrete proposals as quickly as possible.

Food additives

I am also working on a range of other legislation of interest to your sector. This includes amendments of the legislation on food additives and sweeteners. There are many important issues here for stakeholders. I am also concerned to ensure that our procedures for improving the functionality of our legislation are addressed. I think most of you know my views in relation to overall objectives being laid down in framework legislation. Whereas, the implementation of those objectives should be at a more technical level, under, of course, overall political supervision.

Novel Foods

Another area that I am considering at present is Novel Foods. The Regulation governing this issue or more specifically its non-GM part is due for overhaul. In this regard, I will soon circulate for consultation a discussion paper on the Novel Food Regulation and its implementation.

I expect my discussion paper will address some of the major issues that have emerged in relation to non-GM foods, and will outline various options. One important issue that needs to be addressed is EFSA's role in the evaluation of Novel Foods into the future.

I am looking forward to the CIAA's response to this discussion document. Obviously the experience of companies who have used the novel food procedure will be of great value in our consideration of what improvements are appropriate and necessary.

Food Contact Materials

In the coming months we will also propose an important amendment of the framework Directive on food contact materials.

We are well aware of a number of recent innovative developments, and the legislation needs to be updated accordingly.

Dialogue with Industry

Before I conclude, I would like to touch on the subject of dialogue. Since my arrival in the Commission in 1999, the extent to which we consult stakeholders has increased very substantially. I am pleased to say that this has proved valuable in getting early input into the various initiatives we are developing.

You and your members have contributed enormously to this endeavour. This morning I would like to publicly acknowledge this contribution and to thank you on behalf of the Commission.

I want to further develop this dialogue, both as regards a new structure for formal consultation and maintaining existing direct lines of communication with the food industry.

I have set out my views here today, and I hope that you have a clearer picture of where I stand. In return I would welcome the CIAA's views on future challenges and expectations, as well as on the individual topics I have addressed.

Thus far, it is fair to say that work has concentrated on "safety". Work will continue on that front, as we seek to complete the legislative programme set out in the White Paper on Food Safety, to implement the legislation adopted, and of course to ensure EFSA becomes operational rapidly.

However, as I head into the second half of my mandate, I see the opportunity to broaden our scope, to pay greater attention to issues such as food quality, nutrition, and consumer information.

Much has been done but there is much still to do and I want to encourage further a sense of partnership in what we are trying to achieve. I want to ensure that any feeling of "us and them", with regulators on the one hand and producers or processors on the other, is consigned to history. We need a cohesive approach in pursuit of a shared agenda.

Dialogue can only help this process.

Round Table on Food Quality

I referred earlier to the Round Table process Franz Fischler and I have initiated. Your President, Mr. Raeber, has assisted greatly in this process for which, through you, I thank him. I am confident that the ideas generated in the Round Tables will greatly assist the further development of food law over time, and, more immediately, in the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy.

Conclusion

I look forward to continuing to work with you, towards the creation of the kind of quality-driven single market in foodstuffs that our consumers demand, our consumers expect and our consumers deserve.

Thank you.


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