Commission Speech (SPEECH/04/313), 18 June 2004
I am delighted to have been invited to speak at this forward-looking conference - and to have the honour of opening the proceedings for this session, which has as its theme "a nutritious food chain for the consumer".
As many of you will know, my term of office as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection will expire in the late autumn. Thus for me, five exciting and challenging years will soon be drawing to a close - five years in which much valuable progress has been made, not least in the vital area of food safety.
Today I would like to make a few observations about where we currently stand as regards European food safety, and also provide a few pointers for the medium and longer term. I will also give some thoughts on international relations as regards food safety and on the highly topical issue of nutrition, with particular reference to obesity.
On food safety, I do not wish to dwell too much in the past. Suffice to say that the major overhaul foreseen by the White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000 is now largely complete. The principal legislative structures are now in place.
And of course the European Food Safety Authority is now up and running and will shortly be moving to its permanent location in Parma (Italy).
Under this broad legislative umbrella we have recently secured agreement on two key legislative initiatives: first the comprehensive hygiene package; and second, the Regulation on official food and feed controls.
The Regulation on controls is of particular significance. It represents the final pillar on which our new European food safety system will stand. So now we have in place the legislation, the science and the controls.
With this under our belts, the way is now clear for the emphasis to shift away from strategic development and more towards practical implementation and effective enforcement of the range of measures which have been agreed.
In many respects this is a more difficult challenge than designing and agreeing the legislative framework. Clearly our legislation can only be properly effective if it is matched by rigorous implementation and efficient enforcement. Thus I see this as a key area, in particular for the next few years, as implementation of the new arrangements progressively comes on stream.
However, in order to achieve the very highest standards of consumer protection in the area of foods, a range of new initiatives linked in particular to inspections will be taken.
These will include:
I would add that I hope that the food industry will enjoy a long period of stability once the new systems and procedures have bedded down. We do not want the food industry to be in a constant state of flux. Indeed we recognise that the industry needs the stability of a reliable and secure food safety system in order for it to prosper and thrive.
So whilst we still have a relatively small number of legislative actions to pursue (including measures on additives, flavouring and novel foods) I do not see the need for further radical upheaval in the foreseeable future.
Before I turn to nutrition and consumer information on food, I will briefly mention a vital area where I very much hope to see significant progress in the years to come - that of international relations in respect of food laws and food trade.
Whilst most of our efforts in recent years have been geared towards putting the EU's house in order as regards food safety, there is considerable scope, and indeed a considerable need, for greater understanding and co-operation in the international arena.
Bilateral relations between the main trading blocs have been difficult in respect of food safety issues. Quite frankly trade-related issues have been at the root cause of many of these disputes.
Since coming into office, I have been at pains to ensure that all of our decisions should be based on sound science. This is the prime policy motivation behind my establishment of the Europe Food Safety Authority.
Europe must have, and be seen to have, a thorough and independent capacity in science-based risk assessment.
It seems to me that, as we look to the future in a more trade-liberalised world, we must have greater reliance on solutions soundly based on science. We cannot replace quotas and tariffs with other technical barriers in any unjustified way.
And because the food industry is indeed a global business, we should also further develop international norms of food standards to facilitate trade and foster good relations. A situation under which different rules apply in different trading blocs - for example on permitted levels of residues or contaminants - is almost bound to provoke problems.
So on the technical side we need therefore to continue to seek common ground and guidelines at international level, notably through the Codex.
One challenge is to move towards global risk assessment, accepted by all. With this goal in mind, one exciting development with significant potential is a new initiative I have launched at greater co-operation between our own EFSA and the FDA in the United States. This, I hope, will mark an important step on a long and ambitious strategy with the prize of global risk assessment as its ultimate goal.
That of course is a long way off - but if we can ever reach that stage, and the required level of enhanced mutual trust, why stop there? Could we perhaps then move towards global risk management? In principle, there is no logical barrier if we move towards greater integration of international trade, sometimes unfortunately referred to in pejorative terms as "globalisation".
Finally on the question of international relations, I would mention one further issue which has been the source of considerable controversy. I refer to the "precautionary principle.
The political controversy concerns fears that the principle could be used as a thinly-disguised trade protection measure.
I left the wrecked WTO trade talks in November 1999 with a keen determination. This was to strive for a global definition of the precautionary principle, at last in so far as its use in the area of food safety was concerned, my own direct area of responsibility.
I believed that the true value of the Seattle disaster was its exposure of the enormous disparities between the developed and developing worlds and the differences in expectation between the citizens of the richest countries and those of the poorest.
I had sensed a widespread suspicion about the motivations of food safety approaches in Europe, and, in particular, a sentiment that protectionism rather than safety was our real motivation. I did not believe that to be the case. But, if it was, or there was a perception that it was, then a serious effort was needed on our part to dispel the evident misapprehensions.
One way of seeking to minimise difference and to foster greater trust is to have clear rules on risk analysis, particularly for the use of the precautionary principle. So on my return to Brussels I immediately started work on what became, in February 2000, the European Commission's Communication on the Precautionary Principle. This was our attempt to demystify the EU's use of precaution.
We clearly identified the factors that could trigger the use of the principle:
One of the most important contributions of our Communication was that it established guidelines for the application of the precautionary principle. These guidelines establish the limits necessary to ensure that precaution is applied when appropriate in science-based risk analysis. Key principles are - proportionality, non-discrimination, consistency, cost-benefit analysis and review.
The Council and the European Parliament supported fully the Commission's Communication. Moreover, the Court of First Instance of the European Communities has endorsed the Commission's approach. In particular, the Court concludes (Case T-70/99) that a public authority cannot take a purely hypothetical approach to risk and may not base their decisions on "zero-risk".
Moreover, I have been instrumental in ensuring that the Union's new General Food Law (which also established the independent European Food Safety Authority) contains a definition of the precautionary principle in the food safety domain.
Article 7 of Regulation 178/2002 clearly establishes the circumstances when precaution is relevant. In addition, its scope and limitations are set out. It provides that precautionary measures "shall be proportionate and no more restrictive of trade than is required to achieve the high level of health protection chosen in the Community, regard being had to technical and economic feasibility ......"
This provision enters into force on the 1st of January 2005. Finally we will have a clear definition for all actors in the food chain. Most particularly, I hope that this will act as a restraint on public authorities' intent on protectionism or over-zealous interpretations of what constitutes legitimate consumer protection. It will also be a valuable tool in the legal armoury of those defending their legitimate interests in putting, for example, safe foods on the market.
I believe the time is now right for the acceptance at international level of the modalities for the operation of the precautionary principle, notably through Codex. I hope very much that this can be achieved.
Nutrition and Health
So much for the future. I want to devote the remainder of this address to the main theme of this session - and one which is at the very centre of the news agenda - nutrition and health, and in particular obesity.
As you will all be acutely aware, over the past two years obesity has emerged as one of the most important and significant problems facing European society. Barely a week goes by without a new dire warning about the potential catastrophic consequences if we fail to arrest and then reverse current trends towards overweight and obesity.
Last month the WHO published its long-awaited global strategy on diet, physical activity and health. I hope this marks a turning point in the debate - a change in the weather - a positive move towards concrete actions leading to tangible results rather than more and more words confirming over and over again just how bad the problem has become.
Responsibility for action to combat obesity falls to governments, the food industry, NGOs and consumers - who need to work together to shape a healthier future.
There has been much debate about what has caused the upsurge in obesity. What is clear, however, is that for many citizens the balance of consumption of calories is out of kilter with their expenditure of energy. Supply exceeds demand.
While governments and the European Community have a role to play in countering obesity, individuals must play a greater role in preventing their own obesity problems.
So whilst continuing to promote and educate citizens about the value of exercise, emphasis also needs to be placed on the input side of the equation to encourage greater control over energy consumption.
At European level, the new Public Health Programme provides the framework and the means to take forward important work in the area of nutrition. And the establishment of the Nutrition and Physical Activity network with Member States will pave the way for more coherent strategies with an emphasis on obesity prevention.
On the supply side, the Commission has made a proposal on food claims - or more precisely on health and nutrition claims - and one on so-called fortified foods.
One of the principal aims of these initiatives is to make it easier for consumers to select food and drink products which suit their dietary needs and goals.
The food claims proposal, in essence, seeks simply to ensure that when a manufacturer makes a claim as to the health or nutritional benefits of a particular product, that these can be properly justified and relied upon by consumers.
This proposal has attracted widespread support from consumer groups but has received a fairly cool reception from certain sectors of the food industry.
Later this year the Commission plans to adopt a further proposal to revise the nutrition labelling rules to address calorie values, as well as fat, salt and sugar contents. Again the broad intention will be to help consumers - to empower them in making their choices of what to buy. Again this has prompted disquieting noises from certain interests - even before the proposal is finalised.
Such reactions are disappointing to say the least. In our joint efforts to improve the health of the population the food industry needs to be a key player - not just a non-committed bystander. Indeed the industry is already accused by some in the press of not properly meeting its customers' needs - for example, the high levels of sugar, salt or fat in certain processed foods.
The health of any industry depends on satisfying the needs of its customers - and the food industry is certainly no exception. I therefore hope that the industry will take a proactive approach to these issues - and in particular the fight against obesity - to prove it acts in its customers' interests and not against them.
When I came into office the image of the food industry was perhaps at its nadir following a succession of damaging food crises. Concerted action has since been taken to address this state of affairs and to regain public confidence in the European food supply.
As I approach the end of my mandate the food industry is again coming under close scrutiny - but this time for very different and possibly more fundamental reasons.
The industry needs to heed the winds of change. It needs to show that it takes its responsibilities seriously as regards matters of public heath and is firmly on the side of the consumer. It needs to show that it is part of the solution - not part of the problem.