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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
"Enlargement, Food Imports and Rural Development"
Brussels, 10 December 2003
I welcome the opportunity to speak to you here today and to appear together with my colleague Franz Fischler as indeed we did at our last meeting just over a year ago.
Today I will start with a few words about our achievements in relation to food safety. I will then address issues related to food imports, EU enlargement and finish with some broad thoughts on rural development.
But first let me provide you with a very brief update on the overhaul of the European food safety system.
Food safety was the key public concern at the start of my mandate. The Commission's White Paper, published in early 2000, responded to that concern setting out a well-defined action plan to put matters right.
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.
The general food law is now established. EFSA is now up and running and is making steady progress towards taking up the full range of its functions.
New carefully targeted legislation is now in force, or coming into force soon, covering a whole range of food safety issues.
Measures on TSEs; GM food and feed; animal by-products; zoonoses; labelling of feed, undesirable substances in feed; food supplements; and the withdrawal of antibiotics have all been introduced.
And a number of important proposals are currently passing through the legislative process. I would mention in particular the food hygiene package; pesticides residue limits; the feed hygiene proposal; and our important proposal on official controls.
Whilst our work is not yet complete I am pleased to say that the major elements are now either in place or in the pipeline.
I am grateful for the Parliament's support in getting to where we are now and trust that this support will continue for the remainder of this legislature.
Let me turn now to food imports. International trade in agricultural and food products is an important and often sensitive issue.
The EU has a key responsibility in this respect as we are the world's largest trader of agri-food products. Our approach is to insist on very high standards but within the framework of our international obligations.
As a general principle, the Commission aims to ensure that imported products are treated no more favourably, or less favourably, than products produced in the EU. All the relevant EU legislation is systematically notified to our trading partners in the WTO.
We take careful account of their concerns, especially the concerns of developing countries. Where necessary and provided it does not create an unacceptable risk, we amend our legislation to address these concerns.
And the current proposal on official food and feed controls includes provisions for providing assistance to help developing countries meet our exacting standards.
I make no apology however for our rigorous controls on imports. These are necessary to ensure that there is minimal risk to human, animal or plant health.
The Member States of the EU have invested hugely over the past number of years in putting in place a system which ensures safety from farm to fork. We cannot allow this progress to be undermined in any way.
We therefore have a rigorous system of controls in place aimed at ensuring that imported products are safe. These include assessments of the legislation and control systems in third countries, and the situation in relation to major animal diseases. The Food and Veterinary Office carries out on-the-spot controls to verify compliance.
We do not hesitate to take corrective action when problems are found. This has been necessary in relation to the presence of banned substances antibiotics, in particular.
Additional testing or outright bans have had to be imposed on occasions. This is always unfortunate but we will not shirk our responsibilities to ensure that food is safe, even where this may lead to trade and diplomatic tensions.
But as we also know from experience, potential problems are not just limited to imports. The key point is that rapid and effective action is taken to address problems as and when they arise, regardless of their origin.
Accession day for the new Member States draws ever closer. The adoption of the Monitoring Reports last month marks an important step towards an EU of 25 Member States.
My principal concern is to ensure the full transposition and implementation of the food safety acquis by the time of accession. We continue to monitor progress and provide assistance in this regard.
I have consistently made it clear that the overall level of food safety cannot be compromised in the accession process to avoid any health risk for consumers and to guarantee the functioning of the internal market.
To this end I and my services have spelled out precisely where the accession states need to make further and rapid progress.
The Accession Treaty gives the Commission the power to invoke safeguard measures if necessary. I have stressed that it is in everyone's interest to avoid the use of such measures.
Over the coming months I will continue to work with the new Member States to encourage completion of their programme of work.
I would now like to turn to an entirely different issue that of Rural Development and the challenges facing rural communities. Clearly, prime responsibility for this in the agricultural context is with Franz, but I have a keen interest in this area.
First, an observation. There was perhaps a tendency in the past to think of the rural economy as being synonymous with agriculture. This is not so.
The rural economy is much broader. We only have to look as far as the UK, when in counting the cost of the 2001 Foot and Mouth epidemic, it transpired that the losses suffered by the agriculture industry were by far outstripped by the losses suffered by the wider rural economy, tourism in particular.
Whilst restructuring of the farming sector is an important element of rural development, it is far from being the entire picture. We have to look at rural development in the broader context.
One of the principal drivers of European rural development policy is the desire to achieve sustainable development. This means establishing self-sustaining and confident rural communities that can stand up for themselves, rather than being dependent on State, or EU, support on an ongoing basis.
And this is not just a question of economics. It is also a social imperative to create the conditions for rural communities to prosper, thrive and maintain their identity, on a self-sustaining basis into the future.
Forward looking rural economies
Achieving these ambitions requires a radical shift in thinking and perception. Rural areas are not open air museums, harking back to a bygone age. Being rural and being modern must not be seen as a contradiction in terms.
Food production in rural economies
In the context of a more dynamic rural policy, we also need to focus more on food production. The CAP reform agreement represents a major challenge for food producers. Whilst it is true that continued support, decoupled from production, will continue to contribute to the viability of agricultural businesses at least for the foreseeable future, that alone will not be sufficient to ensure long-term sustainability and success.
Primary food production will draw ever closer to the market. And just like any other market the mechanisms of supply and demand must and will apply.
The increasing liberalisation of trade in agricultural products in the years ahead will mean that quality and added-value will become increasingly important ingredients for future success, both on the domestic and export market.
Future rural economies not agriculture dependent
In my view, the success of rural economies into the future will not depend on the success of agriculture in its own right.
Greater wealth and consumer interest will fuel demand for all sorts of diversification in rural economies. To meet such demand we must ensure that rural communities are equipped to take advantage of the opportunities of the changing consumer-led landscape.
It seems clear to me that we need to think very carefully about the financing framework for rural development, if a golden opportunity for the next generation of rural development and sustainable development is to be seized.