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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health and Consumer Policy
Speech at the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) Conference
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Keynote speech at the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue (TACD) Conference in Washington
Washington, USA, 27 April 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am delighted to have the opportunity to meet you all for this annual meeting of the Trans-Atlantic Consumer Dialogue.
During this meeting you will be discussing several topics of global importance and where effective solutions can be achieved through strong transatlantic cooperation.
As the new European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, I would like to seize this opportunity to share with you how I see cooperation developing between the European Union and the United States on health and consumer policy.
My goal for consumer policy is to ensure that consumers are well-informed and well-protected. The increasing complexity of products, services and markets make this a real challenge.
But this is a challenge that I am prepared to take on since empowered and informed consumers reward efficiency, increase competition and promote innovation.
And the key word here is empowerment. Well-informed, well-educated consumers can indicate what their preferences are and contribute to shape the market. In order to empower consumers I plan to work on three pillars: information, education and redress, both individually and collectively.
The financial crisis – which has affected us both the United Sates and Europe - has highlighted the need for more transparency in the area of financial services.
Such as: transparent and comparable pre-contractual information for consumers, good financial advice, as well as a sound financial education.
The European Commission's systemic response to the financial crisis includes proposals to overhaul the financial supervisory architecture. This is a challenge we have in common with the US.
It is clear that consumers were not adequately protected during the financial crisis. As Consumer Protection Commissioner, I want to ensure that consumers now regain trust in financial services and that markets work well for them.
Product safety for non food products
A prominent area for joint Trans-Atlantic effort is product safety.
Growing international trade and global product supply chains mean that ensuring a high level of consumer product safety has become a global concern and a common challenge for enforcers.
Close cooperation and information exchange between the authorities on both sides of the Atlantic will contribute to ensuring safer consumer markets.
In this respect, I very much welcome the start of negotiations between the EU and the US on an agreement on cooperation and information exchange in the area of consumer product safety, which I hope will be concluded by the end of the year.
But rules and regulations are ineffective if they are not properly enforced.
In today's globalised world in which traders and consumers increasingly look beyond their own borders for new deals, enforcement must also go beyond borders.
To meet this challenge, the same rationale for stronger cooperation as in the area of product safety applies.
We need effective structures that allow our enforcers to swiftly exchange relevant information and to work closely together in order to protect consumers from rogue traders and their deceptive practices.
As a first step, we have just started negotiating an agreement on the enforcement of consumer protection law with the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
This agreement will give us a powerful, new tool to stop unfair commercial practices as well as other online abuses of citizen's rights.
In Europe, a recent example of successful enforcement is the Europe-wide 'Sweeps'. These are systematic checks of websites, most recently on websites selling airline tickets or cell phone services.
The sweeps were carried out simultaneously by the enforcers in the European Union countries and then followed by appropriate enforcement measures.
As you well know, if things do go wrong, simple and cost-effective means of redress for mass claims can enhance consumer confidence.
To explore this further, the European Commission plans to launch a public consultation on this very important issue later this year.
At this stage, it is too early for me to go into any detail on a possible future legislative proposal.
However, I want to stress that I attach great importance to ensuring that consumers have effective redress.
Before concluding on this point, I have to underscore that, besides redress provided through the Courts, I also see Alternative Dispute Resolution (ADR) mechanisms as a key factor for any redress system, which in the end has to be based on a set of complementary tools.
My mandate does not only cover consumer policy. It also covers health, another key area for EU-US cooperation.
I see five main areas where we can expect to see real cooperation and concrete results for our citizens on both sides of the Atlantic. These are: health security, nutrition, pharmaceuticals, risk assessment and the anti-microbial Task Force.
First, on health security – whether we are talking about preparedness for a pandemic, travellers with contagious tuberculosis, or other health threats – a rapid and smooth exchange of information before and during health emergencies is critical to help protect citizens' health.
We have been working closely with the Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) on this and I know that our respective Centres for disease control cooperate well.
Looking at today's world and the effects of globalisation, I think that we should be doing more.
The implementation of the International Health Regulations by all countries is a mutual priority and we should step up our efforts together to help third countries increase their capacity for preparedness, surveillance and response.
We are currently looking at how we might have done better in handling the H1N1 pandemic. This is why in July we are holding a conference on "Pandemic Lessons Learnt" to which I have invited our American colleagues.
Nutrition and obesity
Second, on nutrition, obesity and physical activity: we already have a good dialogue and exchange of information following the successful "EU-US Good Practice" Conference, four years ago in Brussels.
We are now planning a similar event next year which will focus on monitoring effectiveness. I am aware that measurable success in combating obesity will take years.
The situation is getting worse and we have no time to waste.
In Europe today over 200 million adults are overweight. That is over half of our adult population. We must reverse this trend.
Third, on pharmaceuticals and medical devices, where we have a long history of close and productive collaboration:
Back in 2003 we signed confidentiality arrangements with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) on medicines for human use and this was followed up five years later with one on veterinary medicines.
This allows us, the European Medicines Agency and the FDA to exchange confidential information as part of our regulatory processes.
Furthermore, globalisation has a major impact on the pharmaceutical and medical device sectors with clinical trials being increasingly conducted in countries outside the EU and U.S.
In addition, India and China are becoming prime sources for imports of active pharmaceutical ingredients.
The EU and the U.S. share the common goals of ensuring that clinical trials are conducted ethically, that data are robust and that manufacturing meets high standards.
Fourth, on risk assessment: Our dialogue includes projects on exposure assessment, dealing with uncertainty, risk assessment terminology and weighing scientific evidence. A good example of our cooperation here is cosmetic products.
If we can agree on what risks we are assessing and how we make these assessments, we can increase the chances of making our risk management decisions compatible.
A good example is nanotechnology safety assessment.
This is an emerging area of collaboration where we can assess and regulate risks related to the application of nanotechnology in food, feed and consumer products. As a result, we avoid divergent regulatory approaches, foster the development of "smart" nanotechnology, and enhance the possibilities of educating our citizens on the benefits of new technologies. We must favour innovations that bring benefits to humanity
Anti-Microbial Task Force
Fifth, the Anti-Microbial Task Force. A joint EU-US Task Force is being set up to deepen cooperation in addressing antimicrobial resistance issues.
The task force is due to identify priority areas for cooperation, develop a framework for implementing and coordinating these activities, and offer recommendations to next year's EU-US Summit.
Finally, our cooperation in health is not, of course, restricted to these five topics. I see further opportunities for cooperation in areas ranging from tobacco to global health; from e-Health to the WHO.
The health and safety of our populations is heavily influenced by the food they eat. As they say, "We are what we eat". This is why the European Union strives to ensure the highest possible level of food safety "from farm to fork" throughout Europe.
This is not only done through legislation, but also through actions such as effective controls and evaluating compliance with strict European standards.
One of its key elements is our "hygiene package", which is based on the premise that it is the food operators who are ultimately responsible for the safety of the food they produce.
In turn, competent authorities in the Member States make sure food operators are abiding by the rules by carrying out official risk-based controls where the food is being produced.
The European Union has the most robust food safety system in the world. And these measures aim to keep it that way.
Ladies and gentlemen,
We have achieved a lot, but big challenges are still lying ahead. Developments in bio, nano and other emerging technologies gives us an opportunity and a platform to engage in dialogue and exchange. Driving an agenda of responsible innovation across the two sides of the Atlantic can represent a truly global driving force to the benefit of our citizens.
If we can safeguard and enhance the health and the rights of consumers on both sides of the Atlantic, and ensure that they are informed and empowered to use them, then we know that we are on the right track.
Let's continue to work together towards this goal – let's put consumers first.