David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, participated today in the opening of the 9th East-West Agricultural Forum at Green Week in Berlin. He emphasised in his opening speech the prime importance the EU is paying to food security and reiterated the Commission's approach to take consumer interests into account in all policies. The next months will see the start of the operation of the European Food Safety Authority. Further challenges lie in ensuring the tough EU food safety legislation is transposed and implemented in the accession countries and in upgrading the EU control systems. David Byrne saluted Renate Künast on the occasion of the first anniversary of her appointment and wished her continued success over the period ahead.
David Byrne said in his opening speech that enlargement is the biggest political priority for this Commission and despite this huge task, enormous progress is being made on the ground. "From my point of view, significant progress has been made on veterinary and plant health issues, which are my responsibility in the agricultural sphere within the Commission."
The Commission has just recently tabled its final position in respect of one candidate country, namely Slovenia, implying that it is satisfied with the adoption and implementation of the EU legislation. "This sends a signal that negotiations can be successfully concluded in a spirit of good will and consensus", concluded David Byrne, "However, in the case of other candidates, let me be clear. Failure to provide essential information in the coming weeks will risk delays in closing the chapter on time. The timing is largely in their own hands."
The objective of the EU negotiations are to ensure that EU food safety standards are safeguarded and that the health of present and future citizens is protected. The Commission, on behalf of Member States, is devoting significant resources to assist candidate countries upgrading particular their establishments. For example, the SAPARD programme, is devoting some 3 billion Euro to this. David Byrne added: "In spite of all of the excellent work undertaken to upgrade establishments, there will be many that will not be ready in time. In these cases, candidate countries will seek more time - transitional periods as the jargon goes - for upgradings to be carried out. Nevertheless, we have to ensure to the maximum extent that the safety of our citizens is assured. I can assure you that transitional arrangements will be guided by the principle that products from such establishments in transition will be limited to the domestic market of the candidate country concerned."
The Commission will continue to monitor closely the development in the candidate countries. Up to one quarter of the resources of its Food and Veterinary Office (FVO) will be devoted to enlargement inspections this year. The key objective of assessment visits is to verify implementation of the Community's legislation on the ground and to help candidate countries bring their systems up to the required Community standards.
Official Food Controls - demarcation of competencies
David Byrne used the occasion at Green Week to outline his upcoming proposals on strengthening and streamlining the implementation of food controls in the European Union. "I have believed for a long time that the Community's systems of official controls are far from satisfactory for the 21st century. They are patchy and fragmented. They are not comprehensive and coherent enough. And they do not set out with sufficient clarity the respective responsibilities of Member States and the European Commission". Byrne will therefore propose in the near future a major reform of the EU´s system of official controls. The proposals will have a twofold aim:
"Clearly the first line of defence is responsibility by the food processor. This is now a legal requirement written into our new General Food Law. However, I remain convinced that Member States must play a much more active and effective role in policing the implementation of food safety legislation," said David Byrne, "To this end, I will be proposing a harmonised Community-wide approach to the design and development of national control systems. This will involve establishing operational criteria for the national control authorities, qualification and training requirements for their staff, and the implementation of documented control procedures." As part of this approach, Member States would have to develop national control plans. The Commission's role will be defined more clearly by focusing on supporting national authorities in the development of the national control plans and carrying out general audits of this plans on a regular basis, and conducting inspections of particular sectors or control points, if required.
David Byrne is convinced: "This clear delineation of competencies between the Commission and national authorities will, I believe, make for a more rational and effective system. This type of approach borrows from best governance practices. At a much more macro level, it borrows from what Member States are seeking in terms of Treaty reform - clearer demarcation of competencies."
Three pillar structure
This new approach, devolving much more responsibility and autonomy on Member States in line with the principle of subsidiarity, needs to be complemented with an effective range of sanctions at Member State level and at Community level. " I am convinced that consumers throughout the European Union would be less then satisfied with new control legislation if breaches were to go unpunished. I believe we must consider whether or not criminal sanctions would not be appropriate in certain cases, in addition to administrative remedies. At Community-level we also need to consider more effective measures than infringement proceedings. I have in mind here the power to withhold or suspend Community financial support under the CAP or under the Veterinary Fund."
The development of a new approach to official controls is adding a "third pillar" in the Community's food safety policy. The first pillar is an effective range of food safety legislation. The second pillar being the European Food Safety Authority, to be established this year, to identify risk and communicate with the public. "It is only when we have all three pillars in place can we be reasonably assured that we can have a safe supply of food from farm to table," concluded David Byrne.