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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

New challenges ahead to ensure food safety: enlargement and upgrading food controls

9th East-West Agricultural Forum - Green Week

Berlin, 10-12 January 2002


I am delighted to participate in the 9th East-West Agricultural Forum during Green Week, here in Berlin.

When I first saw Renate's invitation, my immediate reaction was to accept participation on behalf of the European Commission. May I congratulate Renate for organising this Forum on such an important topic.

It is not just an important topic for the consumers and producers of the European Union, but also and increasingly important topic for our eastern neighbours.

Might I also say that it is always a pleasure to visit Berlin. So much has happened in this city since 1989. It now represents a symbol of all that is vibrant and dynamic in modern-day Germany.

I can think of no better venue for the hosting of the East-West Agricultural Forum.

Enlargement  Imminent

This ninth East-West Forum on Agriculture is testimony to how outward-looking the European Union has become and, indeed, reminds us of how imminent enlargement is on our eastern borders.

Enlargement is the biggest political priority for this Commission. It will change the shape of Europe for this and future generations. It will end decades, if not centuries, of strife and war.

Our aim is to re-unify Europe.

Enlargement, then, is of major importance, economically, socially, politically.

We are working towards bringing the accession negotiations, with the candidate countries that are ready, to a successful conclusion by the end of 2002. This is designed to facilitate the people in those countries to cast their vote in the European Parliament elections in 2004.

It is possible that ten countries could be ready for accession in this timeframe. This is, of course, dependent on two factors:

  • the current role of progress in the negotiations, and,

  • necessary reforms being undertaken in the candidate countries.

This is a huge undertaking, from the point of view of the Commission and the existing Member States. But the real work is for the candidate countries. For it is they who must not only adopt the Community's acquis, but must implement it.

Enlargement  Progress

Despite this huge task, enormous progress is being made on the ground.

As regards the Agriculture "chapter", negotiations are well underway with ten candidate countries.

From my point of view, significant progress has been, and is being, made on veterinary and plant health issues, which are my responsibility in the agricultural sphere within the Commission.

I am very pleased to be able to inform you that for these issues, I have already tabled the Commission's final position in respect of one candidate country, namely Slovenia. This means that from my point of view I am satisfied with the adoption and implementation of the acquis. This sends a signal that negotiations can be successfully concluded in a spirit of good will and consensus.

For the other leading countries, we expect to be in a position to prepare the grounds for the Council to close the chapters in the course of the Spanish Presidency. This very much depends on the ability of the candidates to provide detailed information and effective plans for sensitive sectors. In the case of Hungary, we may well be ready to propose closure by the end of this month.

In the case of other candidates, let me be clear. Failure to provide essential information in the coming weeks will risk delays in closing the chapter on time. The timing is largely in their own hands.

It is only in respect of two candidate states that negotiations have yet to be commenced, but I hope that they will commence as quickly as possible.

Very clearly the issue of food processing plants in the candidate countries is a very sensitive issue. Sensitive from the point of view of food safety and this is the primary consideration. But clearly, sensitive too from an economic and social point of view in the candidate countries.

Our negotiations will ensure that EU food safety standards are safeguarded and that the health of our present and future citizens is protected. For this reason considerable attention will be given to sensitive issues regarding food processing plants.

Whether in the meat or dairy sectors, significant restructuring efforts will be needed over time. We will work closely with the candidates to ensure that they are ready to meet the internal market's opportunities and challenges.

It should be the objective of all candidate countries to get their food production up to Community standards as speedily as possible and certainly by accession.

The Commission, on behalf of Member States, is devoting significant resources to assist candidate countries upgrade their establishments. For example, under the SAPARD programme, we will be devoting some € 3 billion to this programme. This amount reflects the importance given to the processing and marketing of agricultural and fisheries products in helping upgrade, adapt, rebuild or create agri-food businesses.

National environmental and veterinary authorities in accession countries have a key role to play in assessing applications before, and most importantly after, aid has been granted.

After all, our major objective is to foster investments that will re-inforce the ability of operators to meet Community veterinary, hygiene, sanitary, food quality, animal welfare and environmental requirements. And this means preparing for the opportunities of the Single Market.

In spite of all of the excellent work undertaken to upgrade establishments, there will be many that will not be ready in time. In these cases, candidate countries will seek more time transitional periods as the jargon goes for upgradings to be carried out.

I recognise that there is concern about this issue in Member States. I know that this concern is also felt here in Germany. I also share this concern.

But let us be pragmatic in our approach to this issue. We are all only too well aware that not all is well, in all of our existing Member States, all of the time.

Nevertheless, we have to ensure to the maximum extent that the safety of our citizens is assured. The experience of food safety crises, especially BSE, requires us to give top priority to food safety.

With this in mind, I can assure you that transitional arrangements will be guided by the principle that products from such establishments in transition will be limited to the domestic market of the candidate country concerned.

In addition, the Commission will implement a detailed process of reinforced monitoring through inspections and ongoing contacts.

Enlargement  Inspections

As part of our preparations on veterinary and plant health issues, the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office has carried out a series of on-the-spot inspections in accession countries. These inspections will continue.

In fact, given its importance, up to one quarter of FVO resources will be devoted to enlargement inspections this year. The key objective of assessment visits is to verify implementation of the Community's acquis on the ground. And to help candidate countries bring their systems up to the required Community standards.

The FVO inspections relate to such issues as live animals, food of animal origin (including, in particular, upgrading of establishments), import controls, TSEs and animal feed, food hygiene (including pesticides and contaminants), and plant health.

Enlargement  BSE

I am very pleased to say that all candidate countries have committed to fully transpose and implement our BSE legislation by accession. This is not an easy process, as our own experience in the European Union has shown.

However, it is necessary also to protect consumers in the candidate countries. Unfortunately, my consistent warnings that BSE is likely to be present in candidate countries have been confirmed.

Of course these commitments are subject to verification. The Food and Veterinary Office will continue to monitor progress.

I have been at pains to emphasise the importance of this issue on my visits to candidate countries, in my bilateral contacts and, most recently, when I addressed the Ministers for Agriculture of the CEFTA countries in Bratislava. I can only re-emphasise my message here this morning.

The Commission and the existing Member States have invested hugely in putting in place the necessary controls to protect consumers from the risks from BSE. This has been necessary also to restore consumer confidence in the safety of beef.

There is an insistence that these efforts and the progress that has been made in restoring consumer confidence should be matched in the accession process. I know from my discussions in the Agriculture Council that Member States place particular importance on this issue. I will continue, therefore, to give it top priority in my own dealings with the candidate countries.

Enlargement   Conclusion of Negotiations

I remain committed to concluding negotiations on the key veterinary and plant health aspects of Chapter 7 as quickly as possible this year. I will be greatly assisted in this onerous task by the full co-operation of all accession countries. May I emphasise again the vital importance of implementing the Community acquis in candidate countries. In this way maximum public health protection can be assured in those countries and in our existing Member States.

Official Controls

As I said at the outset this morning I wanted to address two main topics. Having brought you up to date on enlargement issues within my portfolio, I would now like to turn to the other topic of my address - Official Feed and Food Controls.

I have, of course, referred already to the role the Commission's Food and Veterinary Office in relation to the enlargement process.

The overall role of the Office is to inspect Member States' systems of control. In effect it is the auditor of Member States' implementation of the acquis.

Official Controls Existing System Inadequate

I have believed for a long time that the Community's systems of official controls are far from satisfactory for the 21st century.

They are patchy and fragmented. They are not comprehensive and coherent enough. And they do not set out with sufficient clarity the respective responsibilities of Member States and the Commission.

Official Controls  New Approach

I am currently working on a major reform of your system of official controls. I intend to present my proposals in this regard to the Council and Parliament within a matter of months.

My proposals will have a twofold aim:

  • to have a clear Community framework for control systems, in which the respective responsibilities of Member States and the Commission are systematically set out

  • to have a harmonised, co-ordinated and effective system of controls on imports of food and feed.

Official Controls  National Systems

Having regard to my experience over the past two years, I am less than convinced that Member States have the most effective national control systems in place.

Clearly the first line of defence is responsibility by the food processor. This is now a legal requirement written into our new General Food Law. However, I remain convinced that Member States must play a much more active and effective role in policing the implementation of food safety legislation.

To this end, I will be proposing a harmonised Community-wide approach to the design and development of national control systems. This will involve establishing operational criteria for the national control authorities, qualification and training requirements for their staff, and the implementation of documented control procedures.

As part of this approach, Member States would have to develop national control plans.

This new approach will be based on internationally developed management models for control and inspection authorities.

Official Controls  Commission's Role

I also propose to define the Commission's role more clearly.

I would envisage the Commission

  • supporting national authorities in the development of the national control plans

  • carrying out general audits of this plans on a regular basis, and

  • conducting inspections of particular sectors or control points, if required.

This clear delineation of competencies between the Commission and national authorities will, I believe, make for a more rational and effective system.

This type of approach borrows from best governance practices. At a much more macro level, it borrows from what Member States are seeking in terms of Treaty reform clearer demarcation of competencies.

Official Controls  Sanctions

This new approach, devolving much more responsibility and autonomy on Member States in line with the principle of subsidiarity, needs to be complemented with an effective suite of sanctions at Member State level and at Community level.

I am currently studying how this issue should be approached. But I am convinced that consumers throughout the European Union would be less then satisfied with new control legislation if breaches were to go unpunished.

That is why I believe we need effective and dissuasive sanctions at all levels. Breaches of food and feed legislation can give rise to very significant public health problems and to huge economic costs.

Sanctions must be developed that are proportionate to the offence or crime committed. In this regard I believe we must consider whether or not criminal sanctions would not be appropriate in certain cases, in addition to administrative remedies.

At Community-level we also need to consider more effective measures than infringement proceedings. I have in mind here the power to withhold or suspend Community financial support under the CAP or under the Veterinary Fund.

Official Controls  "Third Pillar"

I see the development of a new approach to official controls as being the "third pillar" in the Community's food safety policy.

The first pillar is an effective range of food safety legislation.

The second pillar being the European Food Safety Authority, to be established this year, to identify risk and communicate with the public.

It is only when we have all three pillars in place can we be reasonably assured that we can have a safe supply of food from farm to table.

Food Quality

I am conscious that I have taken so much time on two topics of such vital concern to all of us. But let me say a final word on the topic of food quality.

I have devoted considerable time to debating and consulting on this issue over the past year. Together with my colleague Franz Fischler, we have held a series of Round Tables on the topic in the Member States, including a very successful one here in Berlin.

We are currently studying the results of our work. These will form an important input into the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy in the middle of this year.

I know that this is a subject that Renate Künast holds dear to her heart. I have heard her speak eloquently, passionately and persuasively on the issue on many occasions over her first year in office.

Let me salute Renate on the occasion of the first anniversary of her appointment to her challenging portfolio. She has become a true colleague and a friend over the past year. I wish her continued success over the period ahead.

Thank you.

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