Food Law News - EU - 2002

FSA News Item, 12 November 2002

CONSUMERS - Consumers to move centre stage in Europe

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne says consumer organisations across the European Union (EU) should expect better representation on advisory bodies and working groups and increased rights to be consulted.

In exclusive interview with Food Standards Agency News, the Agency's monthly newsletter, he said: 'Proper involvement of consumer organisations in EU policy making is crucial.

'That is why I have made it one of the central objectives of the European Commission's (EC) Consumer Policy Strategy from now until 2006.'

Under this new strategy, the Commission will strengthen the rights of consumer organisations to be consulted on policy initiatives, he said.

'We will look at how we can increase consumer representation on the different advisory bodies and working groups that assist the Commission.

'And we will be supporting training programmes for professionals in consumer organisations to strengthen their capacity to participate effectively in EU policy making.'

At the same time, national food safety agencies, such as the Food Standards Agency, will be expected to play a key role feeding their scientific knowledge and experience into the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is currently being established, Commissioner Byrne added.

'I welcome the establishment of national agencies and I believe that the EFSA Advisory Forum will provide a strong impetus to national assessment bodies to share experiences, pool resources and underpin a proper system of scientific risk assessment for the Union,' he said.

'It is absolutely necessary for this co-operation to occur so that EFSA can be truly authoritative on food science. In the future I believe that the EFSA will provide central co-ordination for the efforts and resources of the national food authorities and agencies as well as an important focus for networking.'

The establishment of the EFSA is an important component of the Commission's food safety strategy and it will work to high standards of excellence, integrity and openness, Commissioner Byrne added.

'With the increasing sophistication and complexity of both science and legislation, it was clear that the mechanisms of the past could no longer satisfy the needs of the present and those of the future.

'I am confident that EFSA will address these past structural weaknesses and work actively to regain consumer confidence,' he said.

'From the farm to the fork, the EFSA has a key role to play in risk assessment and in risk communication.

'It will have its ear to the ground, monitoring and actively seeking scientific information.

'This will enable it to identify at the earliest possible moment any developing risks in the food supply so that we can take appropriate early action to contain and, hopefully, eliminate problems before they can escalate.'

The EFSA will also be expected to make the scientific issues underpinning food safety understandable to consumers, he added.

'The scientific issues that lie at the heart of food safety are very complex.

'My aim is for consumers to have the best possible information in order to allow them to make informed choices to guide them in their decisions.

'The best scientific information on risks must be formulated by trained professionals in the field - due to the scientific complexities involved, an adequate evaluation of risks cannot be made by lay people.

'It is however important that consumers are able to understand the scientific issues underpinning the decisions we take, and EFSA will provide a window into these complex matters for them.'

People throughout the EU are already taking a keen interest in food safety and food quality, the Commissioner acknowledged.

Earlier this summer he announced a wide-ranging review of food labelling policy.

While not prepared to prejudge its outcome, he said: 'I know citizens are increasingly taking an interest in the ethical and environmental values associated with the food they buy, as well as more traditional concerns such as taste, quality and nutritional value.

'Whether and how labelling can address these concerns, I hope, is one of the things the review will help determine.'

He also noted the considerable steps forward that had been made in tackling BSE.

'The overall incidence of BSE in the Union is stable and the very extensive range of testing being carried out is providing hugely valuable information.

'I note with optimism that rapid tests now account for about two thirds of BSE cases detected, and most of these are found in animals at risk,' he said.

One remaining weak link was the lack of coherent legislation on animal by-products; weaknesses in this feed chain were at the origin of the BSE crisis.

'However, the requirements for feed are now as stringent as those for food with the recent adoption of the animal-by-products regulation and this is a great step towards preventing future feed-born crises like BSE,' he pointed out.

Food safety will continue to be an integral part of the EU policy on consumer protection and health, and the 'farm to fork' approach, ensuring high standards of food safety, is something that will have to be adopted by the candidate countries, he concluded.

'Limited transitional periods have been granted to some candidate countries regarding certain structural deficiencies of agri-food establishments and farms,' he explained.

'The products from those establishments will only be traded on the domestic or regional market. There will be a safeguard clause in the Treaty to deal with situations where candidate countries have not fulfilled all their obligations.

'This clause can be triggered in case of a serious disruption of the internal market or where there is an imminent risk to health, catering for specific situations linked to food safety.

'In the meantime, the Food and Veterinary Office, the inspection office of the European Commission, plays an important monitoring role and inspection visits to candidate countries is their top priority for 2002.

'Clearly there is still a lot of work to be done, but all candidate countries are working very hard towards meeting the required standards. The Commission will keep up the pressure to make improvements - and in any event, the EU will not compromise its standards.'

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