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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Health, Nutrition and Labelling
Address to the Environment, Public Health and Consumer Protection Committee of the European Parliament
Brussels, 19 February 2003
Madam Chairman, Ladies and Gentlemen
I very much welcome the opportunity to appear before you here today to continue our constructive dialogue.
Today I will focus on the important issue of health and nutrition with particular reference to the increasing problem of obesity and then move on to how we plan to improve consumer choice through forthcoming proposals on health claims on foods, and on nutritional labelling.
The principle behind my political motivation is to act in pursuit of a clear, all-embracing objective to help improve the day-to-day lives of European citizens.
And this underpins my approach right across the sphere of my responsibilities be it matters of public health, food safety or consumer policy.
Much of this "grass-roots" approach involves improving the position of consumers to enable them to make well-informed choices about the services and goods they select.
But sometimes the provision of choice is not enough. In some cases we need to address what we might do to help influence those choices to facilitate "informed choices" by our citizens.
Health and Nutrition
Take nutrition for example. How can we facilitate citizens in making wise choices as regards their own health and that of their children?
Scientific research reveals an important relationship between diet, lifestyle and health. Amongst others, the Eurodiet report and a WHO/FAO report highlight the importance of diet in the promotion and maintenance of lifelong health, as well as the role of diet and lifestyle as determinants of a whole range of life-threatening diseases.
In this regard, the disturbing increase in obesity, in particular amongst young people, is perhaps the most alarming.
Economically, obesity constitutes a massive drain on public resources.
And if the obesity rate amongst European children continues to rise, the results could be nothing short of catastrophic. Life expectancy could fall while healthcare spending could go through the roof.
But in my view we should not just look at this from an economic point of view. We need to look to the intrinsic value of a healthy lifestyle and a healthy diet in promoting overall wellbeing.
The general increase in obesity reflects the profound changes in society over recent decades:
Yet our energy intake often exceeds that required for a sedentary lifestyle.
It is clearly in the interests of all, and most of all to individual citizens, that solutions to the obesity problem are identified and actively pursued. Not just by policy makers like ourselves, but by individual citizens.
Yet finding solutions to rising levels of obesity is not an easy matter.
The factors influencing obesity are complex. They include genetic, societal and environmental factors, as well as the more obvious diet and lifestyle factors.
It is, however, clear that excess weight gain and obesity generally arise from an imbalance between the calories we consume and the energy we expend.
As individuals, there are three key aspects on which we should focus: the quantity of what we eat, the quality of what we eat, and how much (or how little) exercise we undertake.
Now, some Members might say that I am stating the obvious. But these points are not widely understood.
For example some of us put too much emphasis on exercise and too little (if any) on diet leading to frustration if we fail to lose weight or if our weight loss fails to match our expectations.
Therefore, in addition to the provision of comprehensive information on which consumers can determine their diets we also need to play an educational role to encourage citizens to pursue a balanced diet and a healthy, active lifestyle.
Now, I am not suggesting that the European Union or national governments can micro-manage people's health. Nor am I suggesting that obese individuals should be stigmatised in any way.
But we do have a duty to ensure that the European public is properly informed and not only of the negative aspects of a poor diet and an inactive lifestyle but also the positive aspects of a healthy alternative and the increased self-contentment that it can bring.
Legislation cannot combat obesity. The Eurodiet and WHO/FAO studies show the need for co-ordinated, multi-sectoral and population-wide strategies.
The active involvement of a range of key stakeholders is essential for the development of clear, understandable, motivational messages to consumers to encourage positive behavioural change.
I do not underestimate the size of the task ahead. We have, however, already undertaken a wide range of projects under the Health Promotion Programme and the Health Monitoring Programme.
The new public health programme, which came into force on 1 January this year, provides the framework and the means to take forward important work in the area of nutrition.
The establishment of a Nutrition and Physical Activity network with the Member States will pave the way for more coherent strategies with an emphasis on obesity prevention. It will also facilitate the sharing of ideas and the transfer of best practices throughout the Community.
Improving public health is a shared responsibility of the EU institutions, Member States and stakeholders.
For my part I am determined to ensure that future legislation takes into account the promotion of public health.
The Greek presidency has organised a meeting in Athens on the subject of nutrition early next month and the forthcoming Italian presidency is planning a conference on health and communication.
Finally on this point, I trust I can count on Parliament's support in the fight against obesity and would welcome your views on the role that Parliament might play in support of this aim.
Raising awareness and promoting education under the Public Health Programme is one side of the equation. But in itself it is not enough.
We also need to make sure that those consumers who want to make healthy food choices are given correct information through proper labelling and that they are not confused or misled by claims alleging certain health or nutritional benefits of the foods they buy.
There are two issues that I want to raise here on which we are currently working food claims and nutrition labelling.
Consumers have become progressively more interested in their diet, its relationship to their health, and, more generally, in the composition of the foods that they choose. I hope that this interest and awareness will continue to develop.
I intend to address these concerns through a proposal for a Regulation on the use of health and nutrition claims on foods in the near future.
The demand for European legislation on food claims comes from right across the spectrum of interested parties industry, retailers and consumers.
And I am pleased to recall that Parliament itself, in its response to the White Paper on Food Safety, identified this as a priority measure to be followed-up by the Commission.
Allow me to repeat the fundamental point consumers should be able to make choices based on clear and accurate information.
Informed choice is our goal and in pursuit of this I favour the approach of 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 in some cases false.
Examples include claims relating to slimming and weight-reduction, and claims of recommendation by medical professionals for example "recommended by paediatricians". Such claims can confuse consumers.
Or consider the following claims, all of which are genuine examples:
As well as being vague and often meaningless, these claims are often difficult to verify.
Claims such as: "Improves your memory", "Enhances concentration" or "Improves your mood" can also be difficult to interpret and are potentially misleading.
So how should we define permitted claims? We should distinguish between Health Claims and Nutrition Claims.
Health claims which state, suggest or imply a relationship between a foodstuff (or one of its constituents) and health would fall into two categories.
First, those that describe the role of a nutrient, or other substance, based on long-established and non-controversial science.
"Calcium is an essential nutrient for the development of healthy teeth and bones", for example. Or "fibre helps intestinal function". We would plan to draw up a list of "permitted claims" within three years of the entry into force of the Regulation.
Second, other health claims including those signalling a reduction of the risk of disease. "Whole grain may help keep your heart healthy", for example. Or "high consumption of fruit and vegetables may help reduce the risk of stomach cancer." Scientific evaluation and pre-marketing approval would always be required for such claims.
In addition, health claims should be supplemented by a general statement indicating the importance of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle. "Whole grain may help to keep your heart healthy, as part of a balanced diet and healthy lifestyle", for example.
The proposal will also govern the use of nutrition claims by providing a list of authorised claims together with specific conditions for their use.
This will ensure that nutrition claims such as "high fibre", "low-fat" or "sugar-free" are made according to specific criteria. For example "high fibre" would only be permitted where the fibre content exceeded a certain pre-determined threshold.
I also intend to address claims that are misleading due to the way they are expressed. "90% fat-free" might imply a low-fat content to the consumer whereas "10% fat" may have less marketing appeal but is a more straightforward and comprehensible indication of a product which, in fact, cannot be classified as "low-fat".
The aim of the proposal will be to establish clear balanced rules that will benefit both the consumer and the industry.
Good and bad foods
I will, if I may, just pause to nail once again the myth that we plan to divide foods into "good" and "bad" categories.
This, quite simply, is false. We are not drawing up a blacklist of foods to be avoided. All foods can have their place in a balanced diet.
We do not intend to prohibit the use of claims on certain foods on the basis of their "nutritional profile". This would run contrary to the basic principle in nutrition that there are no "good" and "bad" foods but rather "good" and "bad" diets.
The second initiative I would like to address in the interest of providing consumers with the information they need to enable them to make healthy food choices is nutritional labelling.
Nutrition Labelling Directive
I believe that mandatory nutrition labelling of processed foods would be useful to help consumers make better informed choices.
However, we need also to ensure that this information is understood by and is useful to consumers.
This is why it is essential to consider what information to give, and how this information should be presented in order to provide real added-value to consumer choice.
The current presentation of nutrition labels is often criticised for not being sufficiently consumer-friendly.
Some of the terms used for example the term "sodium" instead of "salt" or even the term "carbohydrates" are not yet familiar to all consumers.
Some find numerical information difficult to handle and suggest that graphic presentations would be more helpful.
For example, the fact that the information is usually given per 100 grams can be very helpful for making comparisons between products but can be tricky if the actual portion of food consumed is not 100 grams.
All this points to considerable preparatory work and, of course, consultation with all interested parties. This work is under way and I expect to produce a proposal later this year.
Finally, allow me to address an issue which I know is of particular concern to certain members of this Committee. That of residues in food and more specifically the monitoring and control activities aimed at ensuring the safety of our food supply.
These concerns have been triggered largely by the significant increase in the findings of residues of banned substances in third country imports, in particular affecting shrimps and poultry products.
There are two main reasons for this:
We can now, for example, routinely detect the presence of chloramphenicol at levels as low as one part per billion up to 15 times more sensitive than even one year ago.
Such scientific advances are good news. They provide a means to ensure ever higher standards of purity in our food.
But these advances can cause problems for some exporting countries and in particular developing countries in keeping up with both technological progress and modern production practices.
Let me be quite clear here. One of the principal aims of European food law is to protect the health of European citizens.
In pursuit of this we take swift and decisive action where shipments are found containing banned substances or other substances in excess of permitted levels. These shipments are blocked and do not enter the Community.
Where recurrent or fundamental problems are identified, additional safeguard measures are put into place.
Take China for example certain export sectors were closed down. This was done on the basis of significant findings of banned substances in foodstuffs. This decision was motivated on the basis of public health considerations and clearly not on the basis of trade considerations.
And for certain other third countries 100% testing applies to specific exports. This means that all consignments are held, tested and only allowed on to the EU market if they are found to comply with our rules.
These measures are necessary to protect the integrity of our food supply. But we must recognise that some countries cannot test down to the minute levels that we can achieve here in the EU.
Our policy is not to dilute our requirements but rather to help exporting countries understand these requirements, and bring their systems up to scratch.
The recently adopted Commission proposal for a Regulation on official food and feed controls will enhance our capacity to prevent unsafe food from reaching consumers.
It also recognises that help needs to be given to certain third countries to ensure they are not left behind in the march of progress.
May I conclude by making one final point on the clamour of those who wish to see draconian action, such as closing certain third country export markets. I hope that such calls are not motivated by trade protection considerations.
Let us not forget a number of findings occur also within our borders.
On the basis of a simplistic reaction to recent alerts, severe action could have been taken against Germany for failing to respect BSE testing procedures, France and the Netherlands for salmonella in food and Spain for producing meat in an unauthorised establishment. The most recent case relates to the contamination of feed by dioxin, which occurred in Germany, a continuing cause of some concern.
The Treaty imposes obligations of responsibility on me to act proportionally. My approach is always to act in a reasoned manner according to the circumstances at hand.
I do not instinctively hit the panic button every single time a potential problem is unearthed. That way lies chaos.
Member States and third countries are treated in a balanced manner as regards residues and contaminants.
And I very much hope that this equitable approach finds broad favour within the Parliament.
Ladies and Gentlemen, I feel I have spoken for long enough.
[I hope that I have been able to demonstrate to you here today that across the areas falling under my responsibility be it public health, food safety or consumer protection the overriding political imperative motivating my actions are the health, safety and well-being of our citizens.]
I am grateful for your attention and will happily address any questions on these issues that Members may wish to raise.