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Member of the European Commission, responsible for Health and Consumer Policy
"Can innovation in the EU Food Industry match the demands of EU Consumers?"
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Keynote address at the joint conference "Can science and innovation build a more sustainable food chain?" hosted by The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Commission's Directorate-General for Health and Consumers (DG Sanco) under the auspices of the Presidenza del Consiglio dei Ministri
Parma, Italy, 10 May 2010
Ladies and Gentlemen
It a great pleasure for me to be here today in Parma, to take part in this very interesting conference hosted by colleagues here at EFSA.
I am particularly pleased that the theme of this event covers the key issues of science and innovation, which I have already identified as specific areas of interest – to which I plan to devote particular attention during the course of my mandate as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy.
European food safety – the silent revolution
Let me first say a few words about food safety – and in particular about the world class food safety system that the European Union has carefully constructed over the course of the past years.
A decade ago the image of European food was arguably at its lowest point, largely as result of a succession of damaging crises with severe consequences for public confidence in the European food supply.
Such crises may have only affected certain areas and products, but the knock-on effect left its mark on the entire industry.
Those dark days were the trigger for the "silent revolution" which has completely transformed the European food safety system into the coherent and streamlined model we have today:
Citizens rightly expect nothing less that safe food. Safety is the essential precursor on which the food industry is built – the absolute bottom line.
Without safety, issues such as quality and innovation have no grounding. And it is this "safety first" approach that underpins my approach to science and innovation within the food industry.
The immediate question that springs to mind is:
Can innovation in the EU food industry match the demands of EU consumers?
I want to use this opportunity today to:
Let me make it clear: I am a strong supporter of innovation and I am fully committed to maximising the advantages science can offer – but not at any cost. I want to see the European food industry at the cutting edge of progress and development.
That said, innovation cannot take place in a vacuum:
Having that said, I will pursue a policy of "responsible innovation" where advancement is actively encouraged but at the same time is underpinned by due regard to issues of risk and safety.
Innovators have a responsibility to explain the benefits of their products to consumers. Trust cannot be taken for granted – it needs to be earned.
In general, we need a much more open and inclusive debate about science, in which the those within the food industry developing new products and processes have a crucial role to play, to address the instinctive fear and suspicion which remains widespread amongst European citizens.
With these principles in mind, I will turn to some specific examples with a strong innovation theme, and set out how our legislative approach aims to support and encourage responsible innovation.
Plant protection products and Pesticides
Pesticides play a vital role in the agricultural, horticultural and forestry industries. However, they can, of course, have a negative impact on human and animal health and on the environment.
Our goal – with the new legislation adopted in 2009 - is to encourage the development of efficient and innovative plant protection products to the benefit of consumers, farmers and industry across Europe.
It marks a bold and decisive step in the global race to develop new processes and technologies by actively encouraging forward-looking developments on safer plant protection products for a more responsible and more sustainable European agriculture.
The removal from the market of outdated chemicals together with strict requirements for new approvals serves to drive the industry forward through the gradual and progressive substitution of yesterday's chemistry by better and safer products.
Of course, we recognise that this approach poses significant challenges for the pesticides industry in the short to medium term. But the prize is certainly worth the effort for all concerned.
On GMOs, my fundamental approach is a very simple one. I am not in favour or against GMO, but I follow science based decision making. Where the thorough scientific assessment of a product concludes that the legal requirements are fulfilled, I see no reason to procrastinate the authorisation.
As regards authorisation, the procedure agreed by Parliament and Council in 2003 will remain the starting point, but I want the biotech-industry to raise its game and have encouraged industry to ensure:
As regards cultivation of GMOs I am committed to coming forward before the summer with a concrete initiative on how to grant Member States the freedom to decide whether or not to permit the cultivation of GM crops on their territory.
Finally on this point, I should make it clear that I am not in any way attempting to force EU citizens into accepting GMOs. Choice should naturally remain the prerogative of the consumer. But I do want to encourage a more rational, constructive and balanced debate amongst all interested parties.
I would now like to turn to the legislation on "novel foods" which, as the name suggests, covers EU-wide rules for granting access to the market to food products that have not hitherto been used in European Union.
The main principle is that operators cannot sell novel foods or novel food ingredients without first securing permission or authorisation following a scientific pre-marketing assessment controlled by the Member States and the Commission.
The authorisation procedure lays down the rules for the supervision, labelling and use of novel foods. The new rules would have a positive impact on innovation and on market access to new products.
Two issues of particular sensitivity falling within the scope of the novel foods legislation are cloning and nano-materials:
Regarding cloning, one of the first commitments I made following my appointment to this post was to commission a full report on cloning to be drawn up by the end of this year.
My intention is to establish a clear and consistent approach towards cloning, to gain a complete and balanced picture, taking account of the full range of EU interests and values.
Similarly, the development of nano-materials needs to brought more into the public arena. It is essential of course that these new and emerging technologies are subject to a proper risk assessment to ensure that only safe products are put on the market.
Nanotechnologies are expected to deliver significant advances across a wide range of domains, including medicines and food, in the years to come.
But along with the promise of important benefits for patients and consumers comes the possibility of nano applications posing risks, some of which may be new.
It is essential of course that these new and emerging technologies are subject to state-of-the-art and properly-adapted risk assessment backed up by thorough research to ensure that only safe products are put on the market.
And constructive, coherent and transparent engagement with all stakeholders is absolutely paramount, to ensure a wide-ranging and inclusive dialogue based on facts and not on myths.
The challenge for industry is considerable, but it is one that it must meet if is to break free of the suspicion and opposition.
Other innovation friendly measures
Before concluding let me address two other areas which show that responsible innovation can also contribute to sustainability: "Food packaging" and " Health claims"
On "Food packaging" new materials are now being used to produce light-weight packaging with improved barrier properties – an area in which nanotechnology plays a role.
To respond to the need to achieve sustainability, more and more packaging solutions are being developed using bio-based or biodegradable plastics.
Our broad aim is to review the current legal framework on food contact materials with a view to creating a modernised legal environment that allows innovation to flourish whilst ensuring the highest level of safety for packaged food.
And finally, our legislation to regulate "Nutrition and Health Claims" made on foods.
The basic principle is that claims on nutrition and health grounds should not be false, not be ambiguous and not be misleading.
To ensure this, in order to bear nutrition or health claims, foods will have to comply with specific nutrient profiles and claims will have to be approved.
But how does this encourage innovation?
In effect, it will clear the fog by stripping away the misleading, spurious and false claims to leave only those claims which have been properly substantiated by science.
This leaves the field much clearer for genuine innovators to thrive – and thus will provide a further incentive for food operators to compete on a true level paying field, whilst boosting the confidence of consumers safe in the knowledge that only verifiable claims can be made.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
Let me return to the original question – Can innovation in the EU food industry match the demands of EU consumers?
I believe it can, and, when it is responsible it does. But for innovations to succeed, in particular in the area of new technologies, citizens need to be firmly on board.
This requires dialogue and concerted efforts to set out the benefits, or potential benefits, of innovative products and processes – not as an apparent afterthought but as an integral part of the development process.
Industry needs to learn the lessons and ensure that citizens, rather than being on the periphery, are always placed at the very centre of its plans.