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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Animal transport - Improvement on the way
Annual General Meeting of the Veterinary Officers Association of Ireland (VOA)
Tullamore, 4 April 2003
I am delighted to have been invited to speak at the scientific session of your Annual General Meeting here in Tullamore.
As European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, I recognise the key role that veterinarians play in animal health and welfare issues. I rely on their advice in my own work on a daily basis in Brussels.
Here in Ireland, veterinarians represented by your Association have very responsible positions at the front line of advice, control of animal diseases, the protection of the welfare of animals and, crucially, consumer protection.
Close encounter of third kind
It has not just been in my role as European Commissioner that I have come to value the work of your profession. As someone who was brought up in a midland's town not a million miles from here the local veterinarian was always regarded as an essential member of the rural community. The same is true today, but I believe that the greater urbanisation of Ireland, over the past twenty years particularly, has contributed to a diminution of the visibility of your important public service role.
Of course, at a later stage of my professional life I became familiar again with the role of veterinarians in meat plants, in particular, during my participation in the Beef Tribunal as counsel for the Tribunal.
And now in my current role, I am having with what I describe, kindly, as my "close encounter of the third kind" with the veterinary community.
White Paper on Food Safety
Over the course of my address this afternoon I would like to range over a few topics that I hope will be of interest to you.
Firstly, I would like to recall the food safety agenda that I have pioneered since coming into office.
You will recall that my coming into office was accompanied by food scare after food scare. Consumers were legitimately concerned and were turning to policy makers to do something, and fast.
My first task was to identify what were the gaps in the system and to propose action to plug them. This quickly led to my Food Safety Action plan published in the Commission's White Paper on Food Safety.
Priority action had to be focused on the main structural changes that required to be made to ensure that consumers could have confidence in the system underpinning the delivery of safe food.
The first pillar in that system was the establishment of the European Food Safety Authority.
I have been strongly committed to creating such an important body for the EU from the first day I came into office. I see EFSA as a cornerstone of our policy on food safety one that places science at its very centre the essential foundation on which decisions are based.
In separating risk assessment on the one side from risk management on the other, we have created a structure, which assures consumers, that all issues of food safety are properly and transparently addressed.
The path is now clear for EFSA to begin taking up the full range of its functions, including establishing its own scientific committees and panels to take over from those currently housed within the Commission.
As EFSA starts to live and breathe, it will progressively seek to develop its authority and credibility. It will strengthen and co-ordinate the scientific basis of our food safety policy and provide an independent voice at EU level as far as science is concerned.
It is also important that EFSA establishes strong links and co-operates dynamically with national food safety authorities, including the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in order to create a fully effective risk communication policy.
General Food Law
The second major pillar of my approach to a modern system of food safety in the European Union was the enactment of the General Food Law. This sets out the general principles and requirements of food law and lays down the procedures that are to apply in matters of food safety for the future. Importantly, it applies these principles and requirements to animal feed for the first time. This is particularly important as very many of the problems that emerge as food safety problems for consumers have their origins in animal feed dioxin, sludge, BSE, growth promoters, banned veterinary substances.
Key role of Irish vets
In this latter regard, I would like to pay tribute to the vigilance of the Irish veterinary authorities, with your members in the front line, for their assiduous tackling of problems at the animal feed end of the business, whether they be illegal use of growth promoters, abuses of the ban on the use of meat and bone meal, to name but a few.
This is true public service and I am also pleased that the legislative regime in Ireland, from enforcement through to prosecution is one of the toughest around. Perpetrators of heinous crimes such as these must be held to account and pay the penalty if found guilty in the criminal courts.
But we must not rest on our laurels, however deserved they might be.
Even if control functions in any one area or Member State are functioning well, this does not mean that they cannot be improved or that the collective capacity of the European Union cannot be upgraded.
New Food/Feed Controls Proposal
That is exactly why I have proposed far reaching reforms of our systems of official controls at the European Union level.
I have long believed that the Community's systems of official controls for food and feed are far from sufficient to meet the demands of the 21st century.
So what's wrong with the current systems?
Well they are patchy and fragmented. They lack overall coherency and synergy. The responsibilities of Member States and the Commission are not set out with sufficient clarity and precision. And our trading partners, especially developing countries, don't always understand our requirements.
The proposal that I have devised is designed to put matters on a sound footing for the next decade, and beyond.
It will improve the efficiency of Member State control services through :
This is in keeping with the guiding "farm to fork" principle.
My proposals will improve the efficiency of the Commission's control services the Food and Veterinary Office operating from Grange, Co. Meath - through a more transparent, strategic and integrated approach to controls.
They will also define enforcement measures, including sanctions, to address cases of non-compliance with food and feed laws.
And they will assist developing countries towards meeting our requirements for their exports to the European Union.
The adoption of it will improve significantly our ability to manage the food chain making it possible to ensure ever-safer food for European consumers.
European-level criminal offences
I spoke earlier of my admiration for the determination with which the Irish authorities had used domestic legislation to prosecute and punish, by means of the criminal justice system, people who had committed terrible food safety crimes.
There are wider lessons to be learned from this approach throughout the European Union, and into an enlarged Union of 25 States from April of next year.
This is why my proposals contain provision for criminal sanctions.
Experience has brought it home to me that we need to augment the current system of sanctions for failure to comply with EU food and feed laws. I am proposing that we add real "teeth" to our arsenal of weapons in our fight for the legitimate interests of consumers.
Clearly, the type and gravity of sanctions will depend on the gravity of the offence in question.
Punishment must fit crime
But in some cases, criminal sanctions are necessary where serious offences are identified committed either deliberately or through gross negligence. I am convinced that criminal sanctions will have a strong deterrent effect as they do here in Ireland and they are aimed at ensuring that the punishment fits the crime.
But let me clarify one aspect of my proposal while the draft Regulation sets out a list of activities, the breach of which could give rise to criminal prosecution, the actual prosecution and tarification of the offence will be a matter for each Member State. In this way the "sovereignty" of the diverse criminal systems across the Union will be preserved.
Another area of keen interest to your profession is that of the protection of animals. Important advances have been made in this area over recent years, not least the recognition in the protocol to the Amsterdam Treaty that animals are "sentient beings".
Room for Improvement
Notwithstanding the advances that have been made in law and practice over recent times, there is substantial room for improvement.
In my opinion, improvements can be made in a number of areas, including :
I am working on a new legislative proposal to tackle all of these areas.
This endeavour is not without controversy, and many aspects of what I have under consideration are hotly debated and contested.
There are economic interests and aspects that have to be fully taken into account by me, and by my colleagues in the Commission, in arriving at our position.
But let me be clear. I want to see the outcome of my proposal as being a genuine qualitative and quantitative improvement in the welfare of animals that are transported, particularly over long distances.
No to status quo
At one extreme of the argument there are those who advocate a complete ban on long distance animal transport. To those on the other extreme who advocate the retention of the status quo. My belief is that neither position is tenable nor sustainable.
I can with great confidence say to you this afternoon that I will be publishing my proposal on animal transport related issues in the not too distant future. I can equally say with a similar degree of confidence that both extremes in the debate are likely to be disappointed.
My chief concern is to come forward with a proposal which really improves the lot of animal welfare, while at the same time stands a chance of being accepted by the Member States.
No eight hours
Quite frankly, my life could be a lot easier if I came forward with a proposal that restricted the transport of animals to eight hours or 500 kilometres. On what basis could I propose it? Especially, as the Scientific Committee for Animal Welfare has not come down in favour of such a limitation on scientific grounds.
I am confident that such a proposal, not based on science, would, rightly, lie blocked for years to come in the Council of Ministers. How would this improve the lot of animal welfare?
Such an approach would represent a grave dereliction of duty, and, is one that I do not intend to follow.
Reform will cost money
Neither, might I hasten to add, do I intend to adopt a minimalistic approach. Undoubtedly my proposals will cost some more money. But I am convinced that the longer-term gains, in terms of increased bio-security and healthier animals, will reap greater economic rewards into the future.
Finally, might I say that I am conscious that I have taken up a lot of your time on a range of topics that are of interest to me, as I hope they are to you. Again let me say what a pleasure it has been for me to attend this part of your Annual General Meeting in Tullamore.
I wish you every success for the rest of the meeting and for the period ahead. And I look forward to ongoing contacts and co-operation with the veterinary profession in Ireland.