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Member of the European Commission responsible for Health

'Healthy Habits for a Healthy Society'

School Fruit conference: a healthy start for our children, promoting school fruit schemes in the European Union
Brussels, 15 December 2008

I am delighted to be here today to participate in this important event to introduce and develop the School Fruit Scheme.

This initiative is an excellent example of adding value within the Commission by pulling together different policy strands to meet the goals of the Strategy for Europe on Nutrition, Overweight and Obesity related health issues.

I know that my colleague Marianne Fischer Boel and her staff have worked very hard to put into action the idea of a School Fruit Scheme as a part of the Common Agricultural Policy, and as an important tool to fight the rise in obesity.

On Marianne's blog I was particularly impressed by one comment about the School Fruit Scheme. Allow me to quote:

"A stroke of genius! In fact it is hard to think of a better thing that the EU could do for Europe’s children. This is another truly inspirational Commission initiative, bringing the value of Europe into peoples’ daily lives."

High praise indeed. And as Health Commissioner, I cannot emphasise enough how important it is that we strive, in all our policies, for that "stroke of genius" in order to encourage and promote an improved level of health right across the Union.

Data showing the rise in childhood obesity is a matter of great concern across Europe.

Not only because obesity can damage children's health and quality of life, but also because we know that obese children frequently grow up to become obese adults.

And we know that those obese citizens will have a higher risk of developing diseases and conditions including diabetes, high blood pressure and cardiovascular diseases, and muscular problems – thus increasing the strain on health systems.

One of my priorities as a Health Commissioner is to focus on children and youth. They are the future. And they will shape the future.

Eating habits are formed at early age. This makes schools an important arena not only for academic learning but also for learning good habits.

Research tells us that children know that fruit and vegetables are healthy foods, but also tells us that children are not generally inclined to eat them, unless they get easy access to them.

Experience tells us that children really like fruit and vegetables when they get such access, and when they are served or presented in an attractive and tempting fashion.

And even more promising, research shows that children who get into the habit of eating fruit and vegetables will continue to do so later on in life.

We might have different diets across Europe and different food cultures but nobody, to my knowledge, challenges the message that children's intake of fruit and vegetables should be higher all over the Community.

So the message is clear for all, eat more fruit and vegetables, and start in early childhood.

I would also like to take this opportunity to comment on the concerns articulated in the Parliamentary conclusions on the Nutrition Strategy about pesticides residues in fruit and vegetables.

Under the general banner of health, food safety is an important part of my responsibilities. As you may know, we recently revised the rules on pesticide residues to strengthen food safety in the European Union.

Those revised rules are the result of a considerable joint effort by the Commission, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Member States.

The new rules apply the principle that food produced or imported in one Member State must be safe for consumers in all of them.

The new rules for maximum pesticide residue levels (MRLs) take into consideration the safety of all consumer groups. This includes, for example, babies, children and vegetarians.

The Food Safety Authority, EFSA, is responsible for the safety assessment, which is based on the properties of the pesticide, on the maximum levels expected on food and on the different diets of European consumers

Farmers, traders and importers are primarily responsible for food safety. This includes compliance with the rules for maximum residue levels.

Member State authorities are responsible for control and enforcement and the Commission carries out inspections in the Member States to assess and audit their control activities.

Pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables should not be a matter of concern for any European citizen.

If a Member State authority in its control activities detects products of concern our Rapid Alert System serves to ensure that the product in question is stopped immediately.

Moving on, I would like to take this opportunity to comment on how this launch of a school fruit scheme will fit into the Commission's discussions on how to handle the current financial crisis.

In my opinion this is an excellent time to launch the School Fruit Scheme taking the present economic situation into consideration.

The Commission has a responsibility and also a central role in how to move forward and address all aspects of the economic crisis, leading up to recovery.

A global economic downturn will not only impact on businesses and jobs, but also carries wider negative social consequences, including on the health of citizens.

Experience from past recessions has shown a mutually reinforcing negative impact of economic contraction on health, as citizens are less able to spend, sometimes lowering the priority given to health-related spending.

This also goes for food. There is a negative correlation between socio-economic status and obesity. And the connection between parental unemployment and economic problems in childhood obesity is clear.

People change their lifestyle in response to economic hardship.

When people have less money due to economic problems they tend to buy cheaper food. This will often be food of a poorer nutritional quality, particularly where families are struggling simply to buy enough food to provide basic energy requirements to live.

This is because even when some fruit and vegetables are very good value, they tend to contain fewer calories per Euro spent than products containing high density fat and sugar – such as chips or the cheaper burgers.

This is where the issue of habits comes in. Parents and guardians obviously want the best for their children. They will prioritise to serve them fruit and vegetables if children ask for them.

The School Fruit Scheme is a concrete example of the Commission's commitment to working with Member States and other stakeholders not only to combat the obesity trend, but also to mitigate the negative effects that the economic crisis will have for the nutritional situation for the most vulnerable groups in our society.

I hope and indeed expect that the Scheme is here to stay – and that it will grow bigger in future.

I look forward to further fruitful co-operation (if you will excuse the pun) within the Commission; with Member States in the High Level Group for Nutrition and Physical Activity; and with the European Platform for Diet, Physical Activity and Health.

Together we will make the School Fruit Scheme a successful and popular tool in the fight against obesity.

Thank you.

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