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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
European Food Safety and Legislation: Challenges and Future Policy
European Food Law Conference
Brussels, 25 June 2002
It is a pleasure for me to address your conference here today on the theme of food safety legislation. This is one of the most important policy areas within my sphere of responsibility.
When I came into office, one thing was abundantly clear. Our food law was in urgent need of reform. Consumers had lost confidence largely through the cumulative effect of a number of food-related crises.
Our food law was rather like an old car, heavily modified and customised over the years to try and keep abreast of the times and of new developments. Seat belts in the back, air bags in the front, catalytic converter under the bonnet, new tyres, power steering, a re-spray or two, even a CD player where the cassette used to be.
After many years of tinkering, the old model had evolved into a peculiar looking beast far removed from its original form.
Plus its reliability was beginning to falter. Difficult to drive for all the added gadgets and gizmos; a couple of major breakdowns no wonder passengers were reluctant to get on board.
A new model was needed. Modern, streamlined, efficient, well-engineered, with a synergy of components geared towards optimum performance.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is what we are building in the field of food safety. A new vehicle fit for the demands of the new millennium.
The blueprint was the White Paper on Food Safety in January 2000 establishing the "farm to fork" principle.
The White Paper action plan drew together, for the first time, all aspects of food safety throughout the whole food chain, from the traditional hygiene provisions, to the associated animal health, welfare and phytosanitary requirements.
An important milestone was achieved earlier this year, with the entry into force of the Regulation on the general principles and requirements of food law, procedures in matters of food safety, and, of course, the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority.
A whole range of Commission proposals have been made, or are in the legislative process, covering the whole spectrum of food related issues food hygiene, food supplements and GM foods amongst others.
But today I want to focus on three major pillars of food safety:
Food Hygiene legislation
I announced a radical shake up of the Community's food safety hygiene rules two years ago, through the adoption by the Commission of the so-called "hygiene-package" of proposals.
The new regulations will merge, harmonise and simplify very detailed and complex hygiene requirements currently scattered over seventeen Directives.
These proposals aim to create a single, transparent hygiene policy applicable to all food and all food operators, from farm to table, together with effective instruments to manage food safety, and any future food crises, throughout the food chain.
A key feature of this approach is setting objectives while leaving flexibility for business to decide the precise details of the safety measures which need to be taken, rather than a straight-jacket approach of prescribing them in great detail.
Food hygiene legislation has developed since 1964 in response to the emerging needs of the internal market but it was not designed to match the high consumer health protection standards we have set ourselves for the new millennium.
We have taken on board the lessons learned from the food crises of the nineties. Through this systematic set of uniform rules, we are laying the groundwork for filling the gaps in current legislation and enhancing food safety throughout the food chain.
I am confident that food operators large and small will find this simplified and transparent set of rules easier to work with. The new approach will define a clear responsibility for them to make sure that food is safe, whilst granting more freedom and flexibility for operators to decide how best to achieve this on their own premises.
The basic principles underpinning the new hygiene rules are threefold.
First the introduction of the farm to fork principle to hygiene policy to create a systematic, comprehensive hygiene regime covering all food in all sectors, replacing the current, sector specific, patchwork of rules.
The second principle is that food producers should bear primary responsibility for the safety of food.
The third principle is that all food businesses should be registered. This will allow the controlling authorities to organise better their activities, and to develop and operate risk-based control systems.
The implementation of harmonised hygiene rules has, in the past, caused difficulty for some traditional food producers and also for food businesses in remote islands, mountain areas and other geographically isolated regions.
The responsibility for adapting the rules to such local situations will be left to individual Member States, since they are best placed to judge and find appropriate solutions, provided the basic principle of food safety is not compromised.
This is an issue that has been emphasised to me on visits to Member States. I recognise fully the need for flexibility to accommodate such special circumstances.
Another proposal sets out specific additional hygiene rules for food of animal origin, such as meat and processed meat products, fishery products and dairy products.
In contrast with the existing legislation which is in many respects very detailed and prescriptive the new text, again, introduces greater flexibility and paves the way for further simplification in the future.
At the same time, new rules to reduce contamination of carcasses at slaughter will be introduced, and a certain level of detail maintained, in view of the special risks in this area.
The Commission will evaluate how this new, more flexible approach works on the ground, to find the right balance between streamlining and the need for detailed rules.
As you will know, the hygiene proposals are subject to the co-decision procedure, and, once adopted by the European Parliament and the Council, the Regulations will replace the Directive on the hygiene of foodstuffs (93/43) and sixteen product specific Council Directives.
I welcomed the endorsement of the proposals, on 15 May, by the European Parliament on its first reading. I expect that the Agriculture Council on Thursday will reach agreement on a significant part of the package.
2. Food and Feed Controls
Turning to my second topic that of official food and feed controls I am finalising a proposal for a Regulation of the European Parliament and the Council, which the Commission hopes to adopt by the end of this year.
The motivating force behind this initiative is the differing approach to the operation of official controls across different pieces of current EU food legislation. Such differences result in anomalies and an incomplete legal basis for carrying out official controls in Member States and third countries.
In addition, there is a need to update the inspection procedures applied by the Food and Veterinary Office.
In accordance with our general holistic approach, it is crucial that the official controls cover all parts of the food chain. Furthermore, a Community approach should be applied to the design and development of national control systems.
To this end, the proposal will be three parts:
Allow me expand on these three aspects.
Obligations of the Member States
The competent authorities for performing official feed and food controls must meet a number of operational criteria so as to ensure their impartiality and effectiveness.
The control staff must be sufficient in number and have the necessary qualifications, facilities and equipment. There should be contingency operational plans, detailing the measures to be taken in the case of serious risks.
Member States should establish and implement control plans in accordance with broad guidelines laid down at Community level and submit annual reports to the Commission on the implementation of their plans. On the basis of these reports, the Commission would draw up an annual overall report to be sent to the Council and the European Parliament.
Appropriate procedures must be available for the co-operation of the competent authorities both within and between the Member States in particular when official controls reveal that feed and food problems apply to more than one Member State.
The proposal will also contain uniform procedures for the control of feed and food imports from third countries, including food and feed of non-animal origin.
Obligations for the Commission inspection services
Experts of the Commission would be required to carry out regular controls in the Member States, to verify that the official control activities are in accordance with national control plans.
Commission experts would also carry out regular controls in third countries exporting food and feed to the European Union. Third countries may also be asked to draw up control plans, and to report on the results of the implementation of these plans.
Experience has shown that the existing systems of sanctions have not always been sufficient to achieve compliance with Community law. Such compliance can and should be strengthened by the application of criminal sanctions.
Furthermore, I am of the view that payment of Community funding should be conditional on compliance with the Community's own food law acquis.
As always, the issue of Community-level sanctions is likely to be controversial in some quarters. But how can I tell a consumer that major fines have been imposed by the Commission on companies for breaches of the Treaty's anti-trust provisions, when the best I can do is to threaten, or ultimately issue, infringement proceedings?
Significant strengthening of the Community's capacity to deal with breaches of food law is urgently needed. And we must have the courage of our convictions to make progress in this regard.
3. Labelling of Foodstuffs
My final topic is the labelling of foodstuffs.
The question of food labelling is of great importance for all consumers, and our legislation must satisfy their legitimate demands.
I would like, in particular, to focus on the issue of information on the composition of foodstuffs.
After all, what could be more reasonable than wanting to know what foods are made up of, in order to make informed decisions, in the face of an increasingly wide range of foods from which to choose?
But even more important for a sadly ever-growing number of consumers, is information about the presence of certain ingredients for health reasons: I refer here, of course, to those who suffer from food allergies or intolerances.
It is therefore essential that labelling legislation not only ensures that all consumers receive comprehensive information, but also addresses the very real problem of adverse reactions to foods.
These are the objectives of the Commission. I am pleased to note that, in general terms, this has attracted a broad consensus of support. The European Parliament recently delivered, in first reading, a positive vote with a large majority.
Food labelling is a difficult area. Labelling issues are often more complex than they would first appear.
For example, some flavourings or spice mixtures contain dozens of ingredients. Is it necessary or even desirable, to list them all?
Yet, we must be comprehensive and science based when we are dealing with substances that can cause allergies or intolerance.
To encapsulate the problem: just how precise does food labelling need to be?
It is absolutely essential to avoid an excess of information, difficult for consumers to take on board. Quantity of information cannot be allowed to cloud quality and clarity.
Our proposal aims, therefore, to provide information that is sufficiently complete, whilst guarding against the omission of any ingredients which might cause allergies or intolerance.
Major Review of Labelling Legislation
Consumers today want more complete and precise information on foodstuffs. As a result, labelling tends to be complex. This goes against the desired objective and involves additional difficulties in application and control of our legislation.
That is why I have the intention, in close co-operation with the representatives of the Member States, consumers, industry and business, to launch an evaluation of legislation on labelling, from a modernisation and simplification point of view.
We are currently reflecting on the best means of conducting such an evaluation, drawing on the experience and expertise of stakeholders representing both industry and consumer interests.
Ladies and gentlemen, at the mid-point of my mandate I am pleased to say that many of the building blocks towards a modern, comprehensive system of food law are now in place.
We have a clear vision as to how the picture should be completed to which the measures I have outlined today will contribute.
But I hope that some of underlying themes behind our general approach have come across loud and clear.
Balance; flexibility these are key elements.
The safety of our food supply is of paramount importance to protect our citizens and also to rebuild consumer confidence in the European food industry.
But we do not want to shackle the industry with over-prescriptive measures.
I want to see a confident, vibrant, diverse food industry underpinned by the security of safety, yet free to compete on the grounds of quality, innovation and excellence to satisfy the demands of the discerning European consumer.
Time to say goodbye to the old car. Time to get on board this year's model. Modern, safe and reliable ready for whatever the road ahead holds in store.