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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
“Local production in a globalised market”
West Cork Leader Seminar
Kinsale, 26 September 2003
Ladies and Gentlemen,
First may I say what a pleasure it is for me to be here in Kinsale to address your seminar.
As you can imagine, I am asked to speak at many events, most of which are held in cities. So it is a breath of fresh air in more ways than one to venture further afield, and in particular into the Irish countryside.
Of course, having spent a very hot summer here, I have been able to taste and sample the excellence of locally produced foods and experience at first hand the expanding range of such produce in the local markets.
Furthermore, I welcome the opportunity to address an audience with a large contingent of small and medium sized food producers to speak to you directly about some of the obligations, but more especially the great opportunities that arise from the changing face of food production in Europe.
And that change is nothing short of fundamental.
In particular, the concept of quality has risen steadily up the agenda in recent years and this trend will undoubtedly continue.
No cap on quality
The milestone agreement on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, achieved in June of this year, marks the dawn of a radically different model for agricultural support. It confirms the shift in emphasis away from quantity and towards the promotion of quality production.
Quality is a complex concept difficult to define in a simple, all-embracing manner. In addition to the long-established concepts of taste, appearance and texture it covers additional aspects such as the method of production, and environmental or animal welfare considerations.
In effect, quality is largely defined by the consumer by what he or she chooses to buy. In this broad sense it is not defined by law.
This was the clear message coming from the year-long European Round Table on Food Quality that I conducted in close collaboration with my Commission colleague, Franz Fischler.
We were forcibly struck in our visits around all of the Member States, including here in Ireland, that consumers were demanding ever-higher standards of quality in foodstuffs. They were also demanding greater diversity.
And local and traditional food production was coming to the fore of consumer's agenda.
I am sure that you will be glad to learn that the European Commission does not intend to create European-wide standards for food quality. Such an approach would be counter-productive. This is an area in which a “one size fits all” approach would be wholly inappropriate. It would force the hand of producers rather than leaving them free to innovate and excel, and genuinely respond to consumer demand.
Europe has a rich diversity of cultures which gives rise to a wide and wonderful range of foods. Uniformity of quality would nullify this variety to the detriment of all.
That is why West Cork Leader has such an important role in fostering and promoting local excellence, encouraging people to exploit their skills and the superb local, raw materials.
But before we can address food quality, we first have to consider food safety. This is the starting point the essential pre-condition from which quality can follow and thrive. Without safety, quality is a non-starter.
I have devoted considerable time and energy to food safety in the four years since my appointment as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.
I need hardly remind you that at the end of the last decade the image of the food industry in the eyes of consumers was perhaps at its lowest ebb following a succession of damaging food crises. Trust in the food industry to deliver safe food to consumers had dipped to an all time low.
And although those crises only directly affected certain sectors, the industry as a whole suffered as a result.
Against this backdrop, the time was ripe to crystallise a new vision for food safety aimed firmly and squarely at putting the consumer first and regaining consumer confidence.
That vision was set out in my White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000, which provided a list of actions to establish a new system fit for the new millennium.
Nearly four years later I am pleased to be able to say that we are well on course to complete this ambitious task.
The landmark Regulation laying down the general principles of food law, encompassing the farm to fork approach, has now been in force for nearly two years.
The European Food Safety Authority is up and running, and poised to provide assurance to consumers that scientific advice on food safety issues will be made objectively and independently visibly free from political influence or industry persuasion.
And, crucially, EFSA will publish its scientific advice, so that consumers and industry alike can see the scientific basis for the risk management decisions taken by the Commission.
In addition to the general food law, new carefully targeted legislation is now in force, or coming into force soon, covering a whole range of food safety issues.
New, tough rules on GM food and feed were recently adopted. Measures on TSEs; animal by-products; labelling of feed, undesirable substances in feed; pesticides; and the withdrawal of antibiotics have all been introduced.
And a number of important proposals are currently before the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, which I hope will be agreed in the near future. A proposal on feed hygiene and one for a revised system of official controls have started their passage through the legislative process.
Food hygiene package
Another major initiative under the food safety umbrella is the food hygiene package, proposed in July 2000, which will be of particular interest and relevance to many of you here today.
This package of four legislative acts will merge, harmonise and simplify EU hygiene legislation currently covered in 17 separate Directives. We are hoping for final adoption of the complete package in May of next year.
You may well ask “What will it mean for me and my business?” A fair question.
The key point is that food operators will bear full and prime responsibility for the food they produce. This principle of responsibility is the underlying thread running through the entire food hygiene package from the primary producer, right through the supply chain and right up to delivery or purchase by the final consumer.
Safety must be ensured by the implementation of hazard analysis and control principles (or HACCP principles as they are commonly known). Many of you will already be using HACCP, or variants thereof, as part of your own production system.
In making the proposals for food hygiene the need to protect diversity was utmost in my mind.
As I have said, European consumers demand not only safe foods, but also increasingly seek out a wide variety of high quality products. Real variation often stems from local, regional or geographic considerations. Europe has an unrivalled variety and diversity of such products a strength that I was determined needed to be nurtured and fostered.
So in order to serve consumers and also the needs of small-scale producers, I sought to ensure that my proposals would not inadvertently stifle small, local, traditional food producers.
This is to be achieved by including provisions in the legislation for appropriate flexibility so as not to hamper the activities of our more vulnerable producers.
For example the direct supply (by the producer) of small quantities of primary products direct to the consumer or to local retail establishments will be excluded from the scope of the new legislation.
Also, the legislation will include flexibility for adaptations of the strict food hygiene requirements to apply to certain traditional methods of production, and for food businesses situated in remote areas. And, flexibility will also be provided for certain infrastructure requirements often a key issue for small, traditional producers.
In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, we recognise that the Member States are best placed to determine many solutions to be applied to particular local situations subject to the important proviso that the level of food safety should not compromised.
Member States wishing to apply such adaptations will need to inform the Commission and all other Member States of their intentions in this regard.
If there are no objections, the adaptations will be approved and can be applied. Where necessary, and where comments or reservations are expressed, the Commission will decide on whether the proposed national solution in question can go ahead.
Criticism is sometimes levelled at so-called “one size fits all” approaches. I have no hesitation in stressing that for the food safety level, there is only “one size”. That is a clear demand and right of our consumers. But on the practicalities of achieving that level, we have built in the maximum flexibility possible.
This is I believe good news for small and medium sized business, many of your business represented here today.
I should add that this type of approach is not completely new, as current hygiene legislation already takes into account traditional products.
An important example can be found in the dairy sector. Most Member States produce some form of traditional cheese.
In many cases these are made from unpasteurised milk, for which production methods may not reach every EU hygiene requirement, but for which alternative safeguard guarantees can be approved.
The new CAP
Allow me now to return to subject of the newly reformed Common Agricultural Policy.
The future CAP will be much more in tune with the interests of consumers, while continuing to offer support to farmers and to strengthen rural communities.
It is a vital step towards helping EU farmers to become more market oriented and competitive both within the internal EU market and on world markets.
Despite the failure of the WTO talks in Cancun, the years ahead can be expected to bring increasing liberalisation of the trade in agricultural products. This will mean that quality and added-value are likely to become increasingly important ingredients for future success, both on the domestic and export market.
If a producer wants to raise his or her standards to improve quality or produce professionally branded products, we recognise that he or she will need to invest. Many producers would need a certain level of support, seed capital if you will, in order to make these type investments.
And this is precisely what the EU is doing through its Rural Development policy.
The Rural Development policy, as strengthened by the CAP reform agreement, will provide new elements of support with effect from 2005.
I have championed these reforms in the interests of small and local producers.
I recognise that it is difficult to get a small business up and running, while at the same time taking care that every single of detail set out in domestic or EU legislation is complied with fully.
Take food quality, for example.
Under the new Rural Development pillar of the reformed CAP, incentive payments will be available to farmers who participate in recognised schemes designed to improve the quality of agricultural products and the production processes they use.
Support for producer groups will also be available for activities aimed at informing consumers and promoting products produced under particular quality schemes.
In addition, temporary and degressive support will be available to help producers adapt to the introduction of higher standards concerning the environment, public, animal and plant health, and animal welfare.
Aid levels will be adjusted to take account of the impact of additional obligations and operating costs associated with a particular new standard. Aid will be payable on a flat rate, degressive basis for a maximum of five years.
Again, these are important provisions that can benefit, for example, members of West Cork Leader so as to further improve safety, marketing and quality standards.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I have almost concluded my remarks this afternoon.
But before doing so let me express my admiration for the initiative of the West Cork Leader co-operative, the Clean Technology Centre and AMT in organising this seminar.
It is heartening to see especially in my home country that environmental responsibility is seen as a vital element for a sustainable as well as profitable future. And the West Cork Leader project is a model example of how a co-operative approach to encourage regional branding can boost the potential for success for all its participants.
I do believe that your initiative in fostering local and traditional produce in a sustainable way can also assist some, and hopefully many, to break onto wider markets. And I would not confine your ambitions to just the Irish market.
From my knowledge of your endeavours, I believe many of you could reasonably set your sights on breaking into markets beyond the island of Ireland. Some of you do this successfully already and I expect that there will be more success stories.
As I have said, the future success of food producers will become ever more dependent on quality underpinned by safety. But these elements are not enough to guarantee success. Markets have to be won.
You are ideally placed to profit from the excellence of the food you produce by furthering the standing of the West Cork brand locally, nationally, within the European market, and indeed the world market.
I wish you all a successful, profitable and sustainable future.
Thank you for your attention, but more especially, for your invitation to be with you here today.