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European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection
Transatlantic food for thought
Tansatlantic Consumer Dialogue 6th Annual Meeting
Brussels, 2 February 2004
Introduction role of TACD
It is a great pleasure for me to participate to the 6th annual meeting of the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.
After 6 years of existence, I believe that this forum has shown its ability to make an effective contribution to discussions of a number of important and in some cases sensitive transatlantic issues.
Of course, in this transatlantic dialogue we do not always see eye to eye on each and every point. We would have little to discuss if we did! However, whatever the global political context, and our differences, it is important that we maintain a constructive dialogue towards furthering our mutual understanding and co-operation.
Today, I would like to explain first some important developments on the European agenda in relation to diet and health. I will then deal with the current position on GMOs and finish with a broad outline of some other significant European developments in the field of consumer protection.
Diet and health
Since the current European Commission took up office a little over four years ago the primary focus of its food policy has been to overhaul and modernise the European food safety system.
I am pleased to say that this exercise is now nearing completion. The framework is now broadly in place. We are now turning our attention towards the information that consumers receive through the labelling and advertising of foods.
Information for consumers
I wish to raise three separate but inter-linked initiatives in this regard. The unifying and underlying aim is to ensure that consumers have the means to make informed choices when selecting the foods they buy, and in particular to facilitate appropriate choices in respect of their dietary and nutritional needs.
First, the Commission adopted a proposal to govern the use of health and nutrition claims.
At the moment, many claims promising or suggesting a health or nutritional benefit are difficult to substantiate indeed some are misleading or even false.
The proposed rules would ensure that foods bearing nutrition claims and health claims are labelled and advertised in a truthful and meaningful manner. In short, such claims must be justifiable.
As a result, consumers will be better equipped to make informed and meaningful choices.
A regulatory environment
The proposed rules also take into account the importance for the food industry to have a regulatory environment which allows them to innovate and remain competitive at Community and international level.
The proposed Regulation includes restrictions on the use of certain claims. This covers vague claims relating to overall good health and general well-being, such as "preserves youth".
And claims relating to psychological and behavioural functions such as "improves your memory" or "reduces stress and adds optimism" will similarly be prohibited.
Other restrictions will apply for example to slimming or weight control claims, references to health professionals and to claims on alcoholic drinks.
New approach for claims
But as well as restricting certain claims, the proposal opens the door to a new category of claims. Currently, "reduction of disease risk" claims are banned under EU legislation. In future, such claims will be permitted if they can be scientifically substantiated.
The proposal also includes a new approach on nutrient profiles. This does not amount to categorising products as "good" or "bad" foods. No product will be barred from the market. No product will be subject to a negative labelling as a result of this new approach.
However, products which do not meet the nutrient profiles because of their high content in a nutrient that has been identified as having a negative impact on health will not be eligible to bear a nutrition or health claim.
The second initiative is a proposal for a Regulation on the addition of vitamins, minerals and certain other substances to foods, adopted by the Commission in November of last year.
This aims to improve dietary habits, and is closely linked to the proposal on nutrition and health claims.
The proposal establishes conditions for the fortification of foods with vitamins and minerals, listing those which are acceptable. It also covers limited restrictions on the fortification of certain foods.
The proposal also sets the criteria for maximum levels of vitamins and minerals and includes specific rules on the labelling, presentation and advertising of products to which they have been added.
Again, it will help ensure that consumers can make informed choices from a wide range of safe and appropriately labelled food products.
The third initiative is a proposal on general nutrition labelling which the Commission plans to adopt in the early summer.
This will aim to revise and update the current nutrition labelling rules and standardise the format and content of core nutritional information again with ease of consumer recognition and understanding as its primary objective.
A Community strategy for nutrition
These initiatives contribute to a much broader objective the development of a coherent, comprehensive and sustainable Community strategy for nutrition and physical activity.
As you know, the subject of nutrition and health and in particular the escalating problem of obesity is attracting significant media attention.
I very much welcome the WHO initiative for a Global Strategy on Diet, Physical Activity and Health, which addresses some of the most pressing public health problems, where action is urgently needed.
A few, largely preventable, risk factors account for most of the world's disease burden. The scientific evidence is strong that a change in dietary habits and physical activity can powerfully influence several of these risk factors in populations.
In fact, tackling just a few risk factors high cholesterol, high blood pressure, obesity, smoking and alcohol will have a very significant impact on the global burden of chronic diseases.
Since taking up office, I and my services have devoted considerable time and energy in building a rigorous, transparent and environmentally safe legal framework on GMOs.
I am pleased to say that the new legislation, in force since last November, establishes a clear EU system to trace and label GMOs and to regulate the placing on the market and labelling of food and feed products derived from GMOs.
It ensures full traceability of GMOs throughout the food chain and provides consumers with comprehensive information through the labelling of all food and feed consisting of, containing or produced from a GMO.
European consumers can now have confidence that any GM food or feed marketed in Europe has been subject to the most rigorous pre-marketing assessment in the world.
Consumers will have a clear choice of products to buy as GM food will be clearly labelled. For the first time farmers will see systematic, coherent labels on GM-feed. Europe will have a comprehensive and transparent system of authorisation and labelling that can only enhance business and consumer confidence.
The new traceability system will ensure that GMOs can be traced at all stages in the production and marketing chain, thus supporting the labelling regime.
We have made considerable progress with a series of implementing measures that will soon be in place and which will ensure full application of the new system from April this year.
It was certainly regrettable, to say the least, that at the moment we updated our regulatory framework in line with the latest scientific and international developments, Argentina, Canada and US requested the establishment of a WTO panel. But I am confident that the WTO will confirm that the EU fully respects its obligations.
Product and service safety
Allow me now to move away from the area of foods and turn to some key European initiatives in the field of consumer protection.
One of our most important objectives is to ensure a high level of consumer safety in the EU.
The massive increase in the variety and complexity of products and services that has evolved in recent decades has presented new challenges which need to be addressed.
Our new General Product Safety Directive, which entered into force on 15 January, reinforces safety rules, controls and product recalls for all (non-food) consumer products.
And we are looking at chemicals from a new perspective. We have little knowledge regarding the long-term effects of exposure to chemical and have launched two medium-term projects designed to improve our knowledge and to develop methodologies for assessing consumer exposure to chemicals present in products such as toys, textiles and computers.
We are also working on the safety of services. There are gaps in the availability of comparable data on service safety and risks. We therefore intend to propose legislation to improve our knowledge base. As a first step, we need to understand better where the problems might be and to organise better cooperation with Member States.
Economic interests of consumers
And as regards the economic interests of consumers we have made major strides to ensure that EU rules promote consumer confidence in the EU internal market.
Last year, the Commission proposed key legislation on unfair commercial practices. This proposal for a full harmonisation framework at EU level aims at providing consumers with a high level of protection against unfair business practices by rogue traders.
An important related initiative is our proposal on consumer protection co-operation which provides for mutual assistance between consumer protection agencies within the EU in order to tackle cross-border rogue traders.
As similar problems exist at global level, and certainly between the EU and the US, the regulation foresees the possibility of agreements between the EU and third countries in this area.
In the field of financial services, the revised Consumer Credit Directive is currently in the inter-institutional process to ensure that modern forms of credit are covered by its provisions and to harmonise certain consumer protection provisions.
The Commission has also started a long-term project on contract law to address problems arising from the differences between national contract laws and to increase the coherence of EC rules, notably in the field of consumer protection.
I have mentioned a number of legislative actions but I need to say that a number of important non-legislative actions have also been undertaken notably in the field of training and education in favour of consumers and their representatives.
I would like to leave you with three key thoughts:
First, the integration of consumer interests in other policies should be at the forefront of our attention.
This principle, enshrined in the EU Treaty, needs to be applied more systematically in practice by all actors and at all levels.
Second, a sound consumer policy is important for any advanced economy.
The main objective of our consumer policy is to improve the quality of life of all EU citizens.
Consumer policy measures contribute to consumer confidence and to a level playing field for consumers and businesses.
Confidence and fair competition are key contributors to the competitiveness of our economies.
A sound consumer policy is a guarantee for the well-functioning of our market economies.
Third, I would remind you that enlargement of the European Union to encompass 25 Member States is now less than three months away.
I hope that this historic development will help to give additional impetus to the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue.