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SPEECH/02/55

David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

European quality policy for foodstuffs

Winter Meeting 2002

Vienna, 11 February 2002

Introduction

It is a great pleasure for me to join you here this morning in Vienna for the opening session of your Winter Meeting 2002 which has as its theme Quality as a Chance.

This is the first opportunity that I have had to speak on food safety and related issues in Austria since my appointment as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection. I would like to especially acknowledge the invitation I have had from Minister Wilhelm Molterer.

Food Crises

Food safety and quality issues are of increasing concern to European consumers and citizens. They are issues whose "time has come". They deserve our utmost attention. We must deliver adequate responses to these concerns.

Many of the concerns of our fellow citizens arise because we have had a number of high profile food safety crises over recent years. The BSE crisis highlighted, in particular, that food safety issues transcend borders and need Community-wide public health responses.

Austria has not been immune from food scares and crises. In fact, the last year has been a very challenging one.

It strikes me that, looking back over the past year in Austria, you have faced here the very same challenges we have faced at the European level going back many years.

What it goes to prove, at least for me, is that you cannot take anything for granted. You cannot rely on trust alone. You must have the best possible legislation and control systems in place. I will return to the issue of controls towards the end of my address this morning.

Higher Standards

Every single citizen has a role to play in the drive towards higher food safety standards, better production methods, thereby ensuring higher quality foodstuffs.

Recent waves of public concern have highlighted the need for all those involved in producing, manufacturing or supplying food, on the one hand, and the official bodies responsible for regulating and controlling food safety standards, on the other, to play their part in ensuring that the highest standards are achieved and maintained.

Confidence

A safe food chain from farm to fork, correctly regulated and effectively controlled is the road to building this confidence. Food businesses have their role to play in this regard, as ultimately it is the responsibility of every business to ensure the safety of the foods they produce, manufacture or sell.

The Commission is committed to ensuring that European consumers have access to the safest possible food supply in the world.

Food safety has to be the driving force in the regulation of the food supply. In addition our legislation must be modern and flexible enough to regulate a highly technologically advanced European food industry while, at the same time, to provide sufficient safeguards in smaller, more traditional, food businesses.

European Food Safety Authority

You will have seen our thoughts on how we should deliver on our objectives in the White Paper on Food Safety.

As set out in the White Paper, the Commission's proposal for a Regulation laying down the general principles and requirements of food law and establishing the European Food Authority is the cornerstone in our overall strategy. This proposal has now been adopted by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers.

We are now in the process of setting up an operational Authority.

We have already advertised publicly for members of the Management Board. We will shortly advertise for the position of the Authority's Executive Director. These recruitment steps are going to take some months to complete.

I can, however, assure you that I am intent on having the Authority operational as early as feasible this year.

I have noted that one of Austria's own responses to the challenges you have faced is the establishment of your own Health and Food Safety Agency.

Clearly, it would be inappropriate for me to comment on the internal decisions of any Member State. I will confine myself to saying that the principles of excellence, transparency and independence must underpin all endeavours in the field of food safety and associated legislation. If these principles are followed, there is every chance that consumer confidence can be regained.

Stakeholder dialogue

The only way to face the controversy surrounding many matters relating to food issues, and particularly in relation to such innovative matters as biotechnology, is to promote a transparent, open-minded and balanced dialogue between all stakeholders - scientists, industry, farmers and consumers.

Furthermore, we have to accept and respect the consumers' right to have clear information in order to take informed decisions on which products they want to buy.

Compromising on food safety is not a way for a farm or a company to reduce costs. It is actually a very dangerous path, not only for consumers, but also for the farm or company itself and for the whole sector involved.

The public's demands and expectations have never been higher and confidence is very fragile. We have one of the best informed, discerning and sophisticated groups of consumers in the world. My intention is to ensure that they can believe in the rules, administrations and systems we are putting in place to guarantee the safety of the European food supply.

Quality food

European consumers will settle for no less than safe food and they are right. But they expect the food that they eat and feed to their children to be more than just safe.

Consumers expect food to meet their nutritional needs, to be wholesome and tasty. They expect to be able to choose amongst a wide variety of foods. They expect their food to be produced and processed in accordance with good farming practices, with greater respect for the environment and for the welfare of animals.

They also expect to be informed, in a precise and accurate manner, about the composition, the nutritional value, the durability, the origin, and, in certain cases, the method of production of the food offered to them.

As we enter the 21st century, the challenges facing the European food supply are constantly changing. We eat a greater variety of foods throughout the year, not only from all over the European Union, but from all around the world.

We value the extraordinarily fine food culture of our European nations and we are eager to discover different foods coming from the equally rich food cultures of other continents.

We eat more and more food prepared outside our own homes. We witness - sometimes sceptically - how technology is increasingly being used to make foods safer, more nutritious or more palatable. And we cherish the regional culinary traditions that we have inherited from our parents and grandparents.

It is therefore important that Europe allows all the richness and diversity of foods to be preserved and developed.

I am very sensitive to this aspect. I do not see why we should not be able to meet these various aspirations of European consumers.

I do not believe there needs to be a contradiction between our demand for quality products, at affordable prices, and our quest for a high level of food safety.

We can reap the benefits of technical progress, improve the protection of our environment, and not give up any of our extraordinary food traditions.

Sustainable food production

When we look at these three interwoven components of good food, that is safety, quality and nutrition, we can see how they become equally keys to production and consumption.

This is the way I would like to see us move forward in Europe - towards a more sustainable way of producing and consuming food.

Modern food production methods themselves have raised matters of public concern beyond human health and safety in relation to environmental and ethical aspects of agri-food production, including sustainable development, animal health and welfare.

While the European food supply is amongst the safest in the world, we need a greater emphasis on an integrated and comprehensive approach. We need to consider food safety, wholesomeness and quality, in conjunction with economic, environmental and ethical matters, at all parts of the production chain.

We need to consider a new food production/consumption model. One that would be focused less on output and more on meeting consumer expectations for safe, wholesome, nutritious and diversified foods.

In other words, food safety and food quality would not be regarded as discrete objectives, but rather as integrated components of a sustainable food production and consumption model.

I am convinced that the key to meeting those ambitions is to take an integrated approach to food production. One that places a greater emphasis on quality, within an integrated and comprehensive approach to the entire food chain. One that is uncompromising on safety. One that gives consumers real choice. One that takes into account that eating should be a pleasure and should also be wholesome. And that it should be conducive to our overall good health and well being.

Official Controls

I would now like to turn to the final topic of my address - Official Feed and Food Controls.

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

A system of food safety is only as good as its basic legislation, its implementation and the evaluation of its implementation.

I regard the evaluation of implementation as being the acid test of whether a food safety system is operating optimally. To some it may seem like a thorn in the side; but to me it is a sine qua non.

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, as announced in my White Paper on Food Safety.

I am well advanced with my proposals and I hope to present them to the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament within a matter of months.

The new controls' package 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, and,

  • 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.

The first line of defence is with the food processor, who has prime responsibility for ensuring safe food. This is now a legal requirement written into our new General Food Law.

Nevertheless, I remain convinced that Member States must play a much more pro-active and effective role in policing the effective 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 approach 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

As part of my proposals, I also intend to define the Commission's role more clearly.

I envisage that the Commission would:

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

  • carry out general audits of these plans on a regular basis, and

  • conduct 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 is being sought in terms of the future shape of the European Union 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 range 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 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, for example, 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.

Conclusion

Let me thank Minister Molterer again for the invitation to speak here this morning. It is always a pleasure to visit your beautiful and historic city and country. I look forward to the rest of this morning's opening session.

Thank you.


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