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Androulla Vassiliou

Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health

Opening Speech at the High Level Conference "Better training for safer food"

Speech at the High Level Conference "Better training for safer food"
Addis Ababa, 3 April 2009

Ministers, your Excellencies, ladies and gentlemen

What an honour it is for me to be in Addis Ababa at this joint EU – African Union high level conference, joined by African Ministers and the Portuguese Agriculture Minister, Mr Jaime Silva, who have made a long way to come together at this occasion.

And it is an important occasion ! not just because it is not that frequent that the European Union and the African Union join efforts to organise an event, but also because we hope this event will kick start a very fruitful relationship in the area of food safety and will strengthen the dialogue, cooperation and exchange of expertise between our two continents.

In fact, I would expect this conference to mark an important step towards strengthening the involvement of the public and private sectors in the development and implementation of activities to improve food safety and protect the health of citizens in the EU and in Africa AU.

1 Why a Joint Africa-EU conference?

In December 2007, the Lisbon Summit of EU and African Heads of State and Governments established the EU-Africa Joint Partnership. Under this Partnership, the African Union (AU) is the central partner of the European Union in Africa.

My colleague Commissioner Tumusiime and I have jointly sought to implement commonly agreed actions in the Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) field.

EU's experience in SPS harmonisation & Africa

In the EU, we recently celebrated the 50th anniversary of the Treaty of Rome, which was the first step in the creation of what is today the European Union.

The Sanitary and Phyto-Sanitary (SPS) field, in particular food safety, is a major EU policy area.

In fact, it was one of the first areas to be fully harmonised, and one in which there have been many changes, challenges and successes over the decades, leading to the current integrated system that the EU enjoys today.

Over its 50 year existence, the EU has evolved into a highly integrated marketplace in the area of agricultural products, where food must be safe – irrespective of its origin.

The roots of this evolution started from very distinct national systems in the SPS field, with little uniformity in legislation or controls among Member States.

Where trade took place in live animals and food products, it was subject to very strict controls, usually involving frequent costly checks at national borders and certification from official authorities.

There were significant barriers to trade between countries. Thus, the change towards the current EU harmonised SPS regime was policy and market driven.

This evolution required the building of a strong EU capacity to trigger and monitor the enforcement of these changes.

Looking at Africa, I recognise that it is undergoing similar changes and challenges.

Agriculture is a dominant economic sector, and sanitary and phytosanitary issues are central to trade and regional integration in Africa.

However, in each African country today, there are still several fragmented basic SPS rules, in addition to more specific laws covering different sectors leading to varying enforcement, monitoring and verification of compliance.

Regional integration would reinforce common internal markets and reduce undue customs formalities and control restrictions.

Plus, the likely inclusion of an SPS chapter in each of the Economic Partnership Agreements currently being negotiated between the EU and a number of African countries and regions, will intensify harmonisation and integration.

Let me recall that capacity development in the area of SPS is an essential element of the Economic Partnership Agreements.

While these Agreements will provide the legal and regulatory framework for an improved market access of the ACP countries [African, Caribbean and Pacific] to the EU, complementary measures have to be taken to strengthen the supply capacity of African countries, to make sure that countries can actually benefit from improved market access.

Also, SPS measures are today seen by African trading partners as a key barrier to trade. For this reason, it is of utmost importance that African producers are able to produce food products, which will meet the standards necessary to have access to the EU market.

All these factors are likely to accentuate the need for common principles for veterinary and official checks, controls and surveillance, which are essential to abolish internal border checks in Africa.

No doubt, as the integration processes unfold, the need will arise to strengthen capacity to face up to the challenges. The European Union stands ready to assist in this task.

Why Better Training for Safer Food in Africa?

One way to assist in strengthening capacity in the area of food safety is through the European Union's recent initiative "Better Training for Safer Food".

Launched in 2005, this provides training to both European and third country officials responsible for checking that EU rules related to food, feed, animal health and welfare and plant health are properly applied.

In providing such training, we also aim to help developing countries to improve their food safety systems for the benefit of their populations and economies.

A specific programme is now being targeted at Africa, with the view to promoting compliance with international SPS measures as a key to bilateral trade, both within Africa and with the rest of the world, and increasing the protection of African and EU consumers.

It is therefore my great pleasure today to launch "Better Training for Safer Food in Africa", together with my colleague Commissioner Tumusiime, and of course with you, the key-players from Europe and Africa.

The main objectives of the Better Training for Safer Food programme are:

To strengthen human capacity by "training the trainers", in particular targeting veterinary and laboratory services;

To help improve the national and regional legal framework towards harmonised systems; and

To strengthen the capacity of Small and Medium Enterprises to improve access to local, regional and EU markets.

The implementation of the Strategy so far

To provide training under the "Better Training for Safer Food in Africa" initiative is actually one of the priorities for 2008-2010, as regards the implementation of the EU-Africa Strategy. The other priorities we have agreed to devote our efforts to are the following:

To strengthen the SPS capacity of the officials of the AUC, Regional Economic Communities and specialised bodies;

On this particular point, I am pleased to announce that we are already taking the necessary steps for our first exchange of an EU official to take place in early 2010.

In a similar vein, we are transferring a post from our Brussels Headquarters to the EU Delegation to the African Union, on 1 September, to reinforce its thematic capacity in relation to SPS and public health issues.

Further priorities are:

To share information and policy advice on rules and procedures;

To strengthen the official controls of feed and food systems; and

To initiate discussions on the rehabilitation and modernisation of testing and certification laboratories.

The way ahead

It is now time to accelerate progress on substance.

I am encouraged to hear the positive result of yesterday's Joint Expert Group, which debated SPS among other issues.

Joint Expert Groups are needed to bring together the 'key players' to deepen co-operation, identify synergies, and tackle challenges and create opportunities.

Our two Commissions and the Member States on both sides have started to pool their efforts. Many other stakeholders, however, are waiting to see more results before deciding whether to fully engage.

But the outcome we all hope to see, depends very much on everyone's active involvement. A passive attitude risks undermining our ambitions.

Bold and creative leadership is required, and more needs to be done to increase the ownership of the strategy among the key players.

The need for early and visible results has been consistently emphasised. It is crucial that the Strategy is seen, by citizens and political leaders, to ‘deliver’ in the next 18 months.

Preparation of the Ministerial Troika

The coming weeks and months will be crucial for the future of Africa-EU relations.

As you all know, we have a political requirement to prepare implementation roadmaps for the next Ministerial Troika on 28 April.

This is hard work, but it is feasible.

The Joint Expert Groups, with strong support from the two Commissions, should step up efforts to prepare clear and concise road-maps and to accelerate the delivery of concrete results in 2009.

All of those assembled here today are key to the progress required ahead of us, and I would like to thank you wholeheartedly for your energy and for your personal commitment.

I expect the outcome of today's debate will provide us with an opportunity to reinforce our "Joint cooperation" and to review our Joint approach towards addressing African needs in the SPS field.

I wish you all an inspiring and fruitful debate towards the overarching aim of safer food for all.

Thank you for your attention and your support.

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