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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Progress in building consumer protection
Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy Committee, European Parliament
Brussels, 2 October 2003
Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen
I am delighted to be here this morning to have an exchange of views with the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Policy Committee of the Parliament.
With your agreement, I wish to address a wide range of issues within my portfolio that I know are of particular interest to your Committee.
These are issues that are, more especially, of key concern and interest to the citizens of the European Union, and indeed, to those of the enlarged Union that we are looking forward to next year.
First, I would like to mention some food-related topics. Secondly, to touch on some key public health concerns. And, finally to focus on a number of important consumer policy questions.
Food safety was the key public concern at the start of my mandate. The Commission's White Paper on Food Safety was designed to respond to that concern and set out a well-defined action plan as to how to tackle the underlying weaknesses in our system.
Four years later I am pleased to say that we have made enormous progress in building a new food safety system fit for the 21st century. Your Committee has played a crucial role in that process and I am delighted to acknowledge that here this morning.
There is still a considerable body of work to keep us busy in the period ahead and I intend to mention some of the more important items facing us.
Official food and feed controls
I will start with the proposal on official controls for food and feed, which was adopted by the Commission on 5 February this year.
This is one of the key follow-up actions arising from the White Paper on Food Safety and I am pleased to note that the Committee has already made good progress on Mrs Paulsen's report.
I welcome the overall level of support you are lending to my proposal. I am also aware that some members have expressed some reservations about certain aspects of the proposal, in particular regarding inspection fees. I look forward to early progress on this vital element of our new food safety regime.
Food and Health
While the food agenda has largely been dominated by safety questions in the past, now much more focus is rightly on the link between food and health.
In this regard, obesity and all its attendant health problems has emerged as potentially one of the biggest challenges facing individuals, society and policy makers.
We all have to acknowledge that in this area there are no easy solutions. We are dealing with lifestyle issues, matters of personal choice and cultural preferences, among others.
But yet we must be conscious of, and respond appropriately to, the public health dimension of the problem.
I am launching a broad consultation process to help shape policy responses on such questions as food labelling and nutrition labelling.
Clearly, consumers must be adequately informed about food, so that they can make the best choices, based on the best information available.
As part of our endeavours in this regard, the Commission adopted on 15 July, an important proposal on food claims, covering both health and nutrition claims.
Consumers should be able to make choices based on clear and accurate information. In pursuit of this objective, we are proposing science-based validation of food claims to ensure that every claim can be properly justified.
At the moment, many claims are difficult to substantiate and some are misleading or even false.
The proposal covers nutrition claims, for example -“rich in vitamin C” or “low in fat” - and health claims, that is, claims of a positive relationship between a specific food and improved health. It establishes the framework for making such claims and also allows health claims, including “reduction of disease risk” claims, that were previously prohibited.
In the interest of consumer protection, it also includes certain restrictions. The Regulation will protect consumers, improve the free movement of goods, increase the legal security of operators and prevent abusive claims, thus ensuring fair competition.
The proposal will result in a more liberal environment for claims in labelling and advertising. Disease-related messages, which were until now totally prohibited by EU legislation, will be allowed if they can be scientifically substantiated and authorised at EU level, following a thorough risk assessment by the European Food Safety Authority.
In some quarters our proposal has been demonised and deliberately misconstrued. I am today publishing a document that is intended to dispel some of the mythology that has emerged recently. I will arrange to have this document circulated to members of your Committee.
For example, slogans for non-food products will not be affected at all. Nor will the proposal affect in any way advertising slogans for sweets or confectionery where clearly no nutrition nor health claim is being made.
I look forward to progress on this important proposal in your Committee.
GM food and feed
Turning now to GMOs, I am delighted that in July we reached final agreement on the new regulatory framework concerning traceability, labelling and the procedure for authorisation of GM food and feed.
This new regime paves the way for a high level of consumer, public health and environmental protection.
There are currently eight GM foods pending authorisation under the existing Novel Food Regulation.
Two of these Syngenta's BT 11 sweet maize and Monsanto's GA21 maize line have received a favourable opinion from the Scientific Committee on Food. Since then, the Commission has been in contact with the companies to establish the appropriate conditions for authorisation.
The Commission is now awaiting the validation of a detection method before proceeding with these two authorisations. It is possible that the Syngenta product could be considered by the relevant regulatory committee before the end of this year, whereas the Monsanto application is likely to be some months later, pending receipt of a validated detection method.
The remaining six products have not received final risk assessments and therefore it is too early to predict the outcome of these applications.
I know that this Committee is following very closely progress regarding the draft Commission Directive establishing thresholds for the adventitious presence of authorised GM seeds in seeds of non-GM varieties.
This is an important measure that is geared to recognise the market reality that
there is already unavoidable presence of GM material in certified seeds.
Europe is heavily dependent on certified seed imports which are cultivated in areas of the world where conventional and transgenic cultivation co-exist to a significant extent. We import 30% of our maize seed needs. The figures are 50% for soya, 80% for cotton and 5% for rape.
Moreover, our proposal is designed to ensure that these levels are as low as achievable under the great majority of conditions. Additionally, the thresholds are set, based on independent scientific advice, so as to ensure that the 0.9% threshold set for food and feed is not exceeded.
Let me stress that only seeds for which a GMO authorisation for cultivation has been granted and for which the further use in food or feed has been authorised will benefit from the proposed seed thresholds.
The tolerance labelling thresholds in seeds being proposed by the Commission are 0.3% (for rapeseed), 0.5% (for maize, cotton, beet, potato, chicory and tomato) and 0.7% (for soya beans) as has consistently been the Commission's intention.
This proposal has been subject to a number of letters between myself and your Chairperson, and I will be happy to answer questions on the subject later this morning
Significant progress is being made on public health matters with the crucial support of this Committee for which I am grateful.
The Commission, with the support of the Parliament, has been actively driving the negotiation on the ground-breaking global agreement on public health has been agreed the Framework Convention on Tobacco Control. This is the first international health agreement of its kind. But not, I hope, the last.
Government representatives, a distinguished member of this Committee, and a range of stakeholders are examining the best way forward for patients, professionals and health systems in the light of recent Court judgments on the operation of the internal health market. I expect to receive a report at the end of this year on this complex topic.
Before the summer break, the Commission adopted our important proposal to have a European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control up and running in 2005. Public health's institutional landscape is changing to deal with new European realities. Several other major networks and structures are under development, such as the EU Health Forum and the health portal.
I am sure the Parliament will want to ensure rapid progress on the ECDC proposal, particularly having regard to the strong support for such a Centre expressed by Members during the Plenary debate on SARS last April.
The proposal answers the need for the Community to have the ability to speak with an authoritative voice on public health issues, which affect all its citizens.
We are taking positive action on the lessons learned from the SARS emergency earlier this year. If SARS were to reappear, or another disease threat to arise, we must have the best means at our disposal to respond, based on the best scientific advice, in the shortest possible time.
Tissues and cells
As regards our proposal on Tissues and Cells, our objective is to set a high level of quality and safety of tissues and cells.
I am pleased at the rate of progress on this very necessary proposal.
The Commission supports the Common Position. I remain optimistic that a satisfactory compromise can be found between the Parliament and the Council during second reading.
But for this to happen care must be taken not to jeopardise the considerable progress that has been made in formulating the Common Position.
During first reading the question of whether or not to extend the proposal to cover human organs was discussed. I do not believe that anything has changed in the interim for the Commission to review its position.
In the short term, the more important issues at European level are the shortage of organs and organ trafficking. These issues need to be addressed before considering matters of quality and safety of organs.
A second difficulty is the sensitive matter of the ethical issues relating to the use of tissues and cells. But it is precisely because of this sensitivity that we must rigorously respect the limits of the Treaty.
Here, I would like to underline a key point. Article 152 aims to regulate public health issues not ethical issues.
I am satisfied that a well-balanced compromise has been reached in the Common Position text, which goes to the very limit of what is legally acceptable given the restrictions of the Treaty.
Public Health programme
Allow me to turn now to the Public Health programme. This is the first year of the ambitious new programme, which replaced the previous eight specific programmes.
The new programme has generated enormous interest. There was a huge number of project applications following this year's call for proposals far more than for the previous programmes.
In total we received 427 project proposals. And applicants asked for support from the programme amounting to over €500 M. This is more than 10 times the budget available for this year.
I was particularly pleased to see many high quality projects that include the participation of organisations from the acceding countries.
But of course there is an inevitable downside to this success. The sheer volume of the applications means that, with the limited budget available, it is simply impossible to finance more than a small minority of the projects submitted.
This has led to those involved in the selection process having to make extremely difficult choices between good projects in the different areas of the programme.
Recent experience shows that for the future financial perspectives, we will need to look carefully at how our ambitions in the broad area of health can be achieved.
Finally on this point I would mention the forthcoming Communication setting out our EU health strategy which we will issue around the end of this year.
As the profile of health issues steadily increases, and as we approach the dawn of a Union of 25 Member States, it is essential that we set out a clear vision at European level of how to maximise the health of all our citizens.
The third main area that I wished to touch on is the field of consumer policy. At the outset may I thank your Committee for the swift passage of the decision providing for the financing of consumer Community actions for 2004-2007.
Unfair commercial practices
While great strides have been made in this area over the years, I had been concerned that the approach to consumer protection had been too piecemeal. That is why I embarked on an extensive study and consultation to arrive at what is now the Commission's proposal for a Directive on unfair commercial practices.
This aims to provide common standards of consumer protection EU-wide.
Expanding on the Misleading Advertising Directive, it contains the first EU-wide ban on unfair commercial practices.
It regulates aggressive sales and marketing practices for the first time at EU level, thus promoting consumer confidence.
And, by simplifying the regulatory environment for businesses, I am confident it will make it easier and cheaper for firms to sell cross border, so widening consumer choice.
I look forward to your Committee's support for my initiative in this area.
Commercial trends and opportunities are changing rapidly consumer law enforcement needs to keep pace with these changes.
Unless backed by effective enforcement, the freedoms of cross-border trade and e-commerce could become freedom for rogue traders to harm consumers with impunity.
There is a groundswell of favourable opinion among the Member States for this proposal and I hope I can count on your support too.
And finally to consumer credit.
The Legal Affairs Committee recently adopted a resolution rejecting the Commission's proposal and calling for the immediate issue of a revised proposal.
I will be meeting the Legal Affairs Committee in the near future to discuss their resolution.
My objective is to advance the dossier as speedily as possible. I believe that the best way to do so is to proceed quickly to a first reading in the Parliament.
This is an important proposal, which I do not want to see de-railed. It aims to enhance the level of consumer protection and also to improve the operation of the internal market.
As always, I stand ready to accept amendments that are designed to refine the proposal in the interests of the consumers of Europe. We can then proceed to second reading on the basis of an amended Commission proposal.
The biggest single enlargement of the Union is a mere seven months away.
I have spent considerable time recently in visiting a number of the new Member States in their drive to take on board and implement the acquis in areas for which I am responsible as European Commissioner. I will continue to support them in their work over the coming months.
We are entering the crucial phase of preparations for the historic moment next May. The Commission's Comprehensive Monitoring Report, due to be adopted by the College on 5 November, will give a detailed report on the state of preparation.
There is still a lot of work to be done and we are working with the ten countries to assist them in their drive for full compliance by the date of accession.
I hope I have given you a broad flavour of where we stand on a number of important issues.
We have achieved an enormous amount in the past few years in putting in place the infrastructure and legislation necessary to reduce concerns about food safety in the EU. We cannot afford to be complacent on such an important subject for our citizens.
Yet, we have reached an important stage in meeting the ambitious programme set out in the White Paper on Food Safety. I have greatly appreciated your Committee's constructive approach and support in this exercise.
I look forward to completing with you the range of proposals already on the table and a number still in the pipeline.
I am grateful for your attention and will happily address any questions that Members may wish to raise.