European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Food Safety - What can be expected from policy makers
23rd International Forum on Agriculture Policy of the Deutscher Bauernverband (DBV)
Berlin, 23 January 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to return to Berlin for the annual event of "Grüne Woche".
First may I say that I applaud today's choice of theme "Quality and Safety in the Food Chain". This certainly strikes a chord with the broad thrust of many discussions held at European level.
I am aware that the question of price competition for foodstuffs is currently a hot topic for debate here in Germany. How much are consumers prepared to pay for quality? How far can business go in competition for markets? There are no easy answers to these important questions but this debate is welcome.
You may recall that, together with my colleague Franz Fischler, I organised a fruitful series of Round Tables on "Food Quality". And it was clearly felt by all participants that food safety and food quality need to be addressed in conjunction with economic, environmental and ethical matters throughout the production and supply chain.
I note with interest the German "Quality and Safety" System under which I understand all stages along the food chain are currently working towards meeting quality standards.
We should recognise and celebrate the quality and diversity of European foods as important European values. EU legislation addresses this, amongst other matters, by special rules for traditional foodstuffs to preserve their special methods of production. However, whilst safety should be guaranteed, quality is a subjective value one which we favour and encourage.
But quality must of course be underpinned by the essential precursor of safety. In a nutshell, our approach to food safety regulation based on science, aims to give the consumer the choice between different safe products.
The fundamental question I will address today is: "Food safety - What can be expected from policy makers"?
This is a very broad question. And an ultimate challenge. At EU level we have responded with a clear approach: sound science, solid legislation, effective controls, comprehensible communication.
The answer however is first and foremost connected to our perception of risks. We cannot have a risk free society. There is no such thing as zero risk. Yet we cannot have a free-for-all especially in areas touching on public health considerations.
The European Union has an important responsibility in dealing with risk in a constantly changing global food market. As policy makers, we need to ask ourselves "how does the consumer perceive risk? Crossing a street is not considered a risk despite a death toll of 40000 every year - eating GMOs is considered a risk despite the fact that not a single person has died as a result of its consumption.
You might think these are extreme examples. But they do reflect the very emotional approach we have towards risks.
You will recall that 2 years ago, after the first BSE case in Germany, beef consumption in Germany fell drastically despite the fact that at that time probably the safest beef ever was then being served to the German consumer since the most important measure to safeguard public health - the removal of specific risk materials - had just come into law. These days consumption is rising again although there are still cases of BSE in Germany.
Indeed, the subject of risk and risk perception is of great personal interest to me and one which frequently flies in the face of logic. We will be organising a conference on risk perception to address this matter in detail.
Sound science and risk assessment
On this background, I firmly believe that policy makers in food safety have to base all their decisions on sound risk assessment - delivered by independent scientists in a transparent manner.
At European level we have now established 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 shared co-operation with national food safety authorities in order to create a fully effective risk communication policy.
I recognise that many Member States have themselves adopted a similar policy approach and re-organised their internal structures to deal with matters of food safety in a transparent, integrated and science based way.
Here in Germany, two years ago, a new Ministry was created comprising: consumer protection, nutrition and agriculture. A new "Institute for Risk Assessment" has also been established which provides scientific advice to the Federal Ministries.
As policy makers, we then have to examine how we can increase consumer confidence in the safety of our food by clear legislation based on scientific advice. All political institutions have to embark on this challenge of risk management. At the core of the European legislative process are the European Parliament and the Council acting on proposals by the European Commission.
I feel the EU has very comprehensive food safety legislation in place reflecting the approach for a secure chain from "Farm to Fork". I see from the programme that this is a guiding principle of this conference.
In the three years following adoption of the White Paper on Food Safety we have made significant progress.
Most important, we now have a revised modern food law in place - governing the general principles how to deal with food safety in the European Union.
But I will not dwell on past achievements but will instead focus on what is currently under discussion and what new proposals lie in store for this year.
In doing so, I should underline that in pursuing this radical approach we made it clear from the start that we would take into account specific realities.
Our aim is not to stifle innovation or indeed homogenise the vast array of foodstuffs available on the European market. Far from it. We seek to lay down the fundamental standards of safety to serve as a basis from which quality and excellence can follow and thrive.
A number of important proposals are currently going through the legislative process with the Council and the European Parliament, which I hope will be agreed this year.
An important package of measures steadily coming to fruition is the ambitious food hygiene proposals.
This package will apply to all food operators and include effective instruments to manage food safety in all sectors of primary production and processes throughout the entire food chain.
We hope that a formal common position on the package can be reached in June of this year.
I would also like to say a few words about GMOs without doubt one of the most sensitive dossiers within my remit. It is a good example of how we, as politicians, address safety concerns.
I was delighted when, in November last year, we finally managed to reach political agreement in the Council on food and animal feed containing or derived from GMOs.
The proposal strikes a balance between the demands of consumers for clear and accurate information, and the technical realities.
Let me be clear I deeply deplore scaremongering about GMOs. Every GMO authorised in the EU to date has been evaluated for its safety by independent scientists. There are no known adverse effects on human health from GMOs.
However, public unease about GMOs certainly exists and our citizens have made it abundantly clear that they want products containing GM to be properly labelled. On this request the EU has delivered.
Some outside the European Union have perceived that the EU position on GMO labelling goes too far in responding to consumer concerns. I refute this.
We have a duty to reflect these concerns and address the demands of our citizens. And I need hardly remind the politicians present of the consequences of failing to listen to those whom they serve. And for me this is not just rhetoric, it is a fundamental requirement of accountability, itself a cornerstone of true democracy.
Other important legislative actions have yet to be proposed but will arrive in 2003.
A new proposal laying down requirements for feed hygiene will be presented in the first half of this year.
This will replace existing legislation on the approval and registration of establishments and intermediaries in the animal feed sector to ensure proper feed hygiene is applied at all stages of production and use including primary production, thus improving traceability.
This proposal is of major importance as no specific hygiene rules currently exist for feed production. Its importance, in view of safety, is obvious given the past and recent food scares originating from the feed sector (MPA, nitrofen).
Last Friday a meeting with stakeholders was held to keep them fully on board as the proposal develops.
That reflects our principle approach towards risk management: a transparent, open-minded and balanced dialogue between all stakeholders scientists, industry, farmers and consumers.
Another area of particular concern and interest to me is that of nutrition and health.
On nutrition, I am happy to reiterate here my commitment to a holistic approach to policy making: "from farm to fork".
These three interwoven components of good food that is safety, quality and nutrition must be major influences on production and consumption.
On the food side, we are currently reviewing the labelling system. Every consumer should be able to make his or her dietary choices based on clear and relevant information.
In that context, I very much appreciate the campaign launched by the German consumer organisation during this Green Week on nutrition and obesity.
This year I intend to present some important new initiatives in the area of nutrition. We will define and set conditions for nutritional claims and health claims within a single legislative proposal.
In the current absence of specific provisions at European level, demands for harmonised rules have come from right across the spectrum of interested parties industry, retailers and consumers.
By adopting rules that regulate the information about foodstuffs and their nutritional value appearing on the label, consumers will be able to make informed and meaningful choices. This also contributes to a higher level of protection of human health. At the same time it will increase legal security for economic operators.
I also intend to make a proposal on the related subject of nutritional labelling.
Currently, nutrition labelling is voluntary, unless a claim is being made. But consumers are demanding mandatory nutrition labelling on all foods, and many manufacturers already provide such information.
However, providing consumers with information is not, in itself, enough. We have to make sure that this information is understood by and is useful to consumers, so that they can make an informed choice.
The proposal will address what information should be given, and how this information should be presented in order to enable easy understanding.
These measures have one thing in common they all aim to empower consumers to make informed decisions.
Ladies and Gentlemen, this Commission came into being during a food crisis that of dioxin. We have since suffered the effects of a resurgence on BSE and the FMD crisis.
We have learned from these painful experiences and have taken positive action to prevent further crises.
In 2002, two new emergencies arose MPA and nitrofen both of which were managed efficiently by the Community to avoid them turning into crises.
The nitrofen scare illustrated the importance of a strong partnership and co-operation between the Commission and the Member States, to address the issue itself and to provide clear information to consumers.
With the Rapid Alert System enabling swift and effective exchanges of information, and a strong mechanism of co-operation between the Commission and national authorities, the capacity to respond to sudden and unexpected contamination was shown to have developed satisfactorily.
Emergencies are usually discovered and traced through our systems of monitoring, control and alert. These have improved significantly over recent years.
But there is certainly room for improving the important policy principle of communication which I mentioned earlier.
I am not suggesting we can eliminate food scares entirely, but I am firmly of the view that we can do more to minimise the risk of such scares arising. As an example I would mention the good ongoing co-operation and communication on the issue of acrylamide.
I should at this point mention the forthcoming enlargement of the Union. This is a huge challenge as regards maintaining and improving consumer confidence in food safety across Europe.
The past 12 months have seen fervent activity aimed at ensuring that accession countries are ready and able to apply the full community acquis as regards food safety from the date of accession.
And let me say this. The objective of our efforts is to bring the accession countries up to the legally required standards. That means the standards that already apply within the European Union.
I have said on many occasions that legislation on its own is not enough. Without effective enforcement it is just paper. Our control authorities are just paper tigers if they fail to do their job. And paper tigers don't have teeth.
During my address at last year's Green Week, I focused on the need for a new approach to official controls for food and feed to replace the current system, which is far from satisfactory.
These proposals have taken longer than I had originally envisaged, partly because I have taken this matter forward in parallel with Franz Fischler's work on the mid-term review of the CAP.
The Commission proposals to reform the CAP were adopted yesterday and they indeed receive my full support. They take into account the imperative of respecting food safety and quality. I believe this must be the future of European farmers.
Adoption of the proposal on food and feed controls is expected very soon. It will aim:
It will also seek to define effective and dissuasive sanctions to address instances of non-compliance.
Last but not least, I want to reiterate the importance of risk communication. Communication about risk must be improved and be honest. Industry must play their role forcefully. Consumers and society in general must become actively involved in the debate. And politicians must square up to their leadership responsibilities. This is a challenge for us all.
Sound science, clear laws, proper enforcement and honest communication. This is our European recipe for food safety and the way forward towards gaining lasting consumer confidence.