SPEECH/04/338, 29 June 2004
Madame Chair, Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a great pleasure for me to be invited once again to address your annual conference. And I am particularly pleased to be speaking this year on such an important and topical subject - the role of diet and how to inform consumers.
I regret to say that this will be the last time I appear before this conference in my current capacity. My term of office as European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection will expire in the late autumn. Five exciting and challenging years will soon be drawing to a close.
Five years of progress
Five years during which European food law has undergone remarkable and fundamental changes.
Five years in which, I believe, we have turned the corner not only by agreeing the framework to ensure safer food for European citizens but at the same time by laying the essential foundations for much-needed public confidence to begin to return to the European food industry.
But the last five years have witnessed another important shift of which the food industry will be acutely aware. Whilst matters of safety were once the prime concern of the public and the media, this has been eclipsed to a large extent by new concerns - concerns over whether the food supply matches the dietary needs and expectations of the modern European consumer.
The rise of obesity
The growing concern over obesity is of course the biggest single factor which has placed the food industry once again under the media and public spotlight. Over the past two years story after story, report after report, has repeatedly underlined the gravity of an impending world-wide public health crisis if current trends of overweight and obesity cannot be arrested and reversed.
Worldwide, one in 10 children and more than 1 billion adults are overweight - and at least 300 million adults are clinically obese. One prediction is for two thirds of European citizens to be overweight come the year 2030. Some experts predict a day when children are born with a lower life expectancy than their parents.
And the potential costs of obesity spiralling out of control are nothing short of astronomical. Not only in terms of costs to national health services due to obesity related illnesses - the WHO calculated that obesity already accounts for 2-6% of total health care costs in several developed countries; some say the figure is as high as 7%. But also, and perhaps more tellingly, because of economic losses due to a shorter-lived and less productive workforce.
Everyone agrees there is a serious problem. Everyone agrees something needs to be done. But when it comes to what - matters become somewhat blurred and confused. Up to now there has been much wringing of hands but precious little in the way of positive action.
It is a typical human reaction to look for someone to blame when something appears to have gone wrong. As regards obesity, some blame national governments for failing to take corrective action. Some blame the food industry. Some blame the lack of exercise facilities in schools. Some take the view that it is the individual citizen's own fault if he or she becomes overweight or obese.
But rather than looking for scapegoats, we should be concentrating our efforts on what should be done towards putting matters right.
It is clear that there is no simple magic solution that can solve the problem. If we are to succeed, we need to engage in a range of complementary actions right across the full range of stakeholders.
Responsibility for action to combat obesity in the EU thus falls to national governments, European institutions, the food industry, NGOs and of course individual citizens. We need to work together to shape a healthier future.
Last month the WHO published its long-awaited global strategy on diet, physical activity and health, following its unanimous adoption by the World Health Assembly and its full endorsement by the food and beverage industry of the EU and the US. I very much hope this signals a turning point in the debate - a change in the weather - a positive move towards concrete actions which lead to tangible and lasting results.
Supply and demand
Whilst there has been much debate about what has caused the upsurge in obesity in recent decades, it is clear that for many citizens the balance of consumption of calories from the food and drink they consume is out of kilter with the amount of energy they expend. Supply all-too-often exceeds demand.
So two potential routes to tackle the problem are for people either to consume fewer calories or to use more - or, ideally, a combination of both. But these two sides of the equation are hardly equal.
The food industry traditionally emphasises the role of reduced physical activity in the obesity epidemic and has tended to downplay the role of diet. But focussing on exercise in isolation is clearly not an adequate response.
True, we need to encourage citizens, children in particular, to undertake more physical activity. At European level, the establishment of the Nutrition and Physical Activity network with the Member States will pave the way for more coherent strategies with an emphasis on obesity prevention.
But a large-scale reversal of the more sedentary lifestyles to which almost all of us have become accustomed is not a realistic prospect, at least not in the short to medium term.
What is more, the surplus effort required to burn off a little energy-rich food goes a very long way . For example one would have to walk for about an hour, or swim for 20 minutes, just to use up the energy contained in an average confectionary bar.
So whilst continuing to promote and educate citizens about the value of exercise, particular emphasis needs to be placed on the input side of the equation - to encourage greater control over energy consumption.
How best to inform consumers
Citizens need to be aware of what makes up a healthy balanced diet and also of the potential consequences of consuming excessive amounts of certain nutrients - sugar, salt and fat being the most obvious examples.
They need to know what they are eating - to know what their food contains - and it is this area on which I will now focus: how best to inform consumers.
In this regard, the European Commission is pursuing three important and related initiatives of which many of you will already be aware.
First, we adopted last summer a proposal for a European Regulation on food claims - or more precisely, on health and nutrition claims. This proposal, in essence, seeks simply to ensure that when a food manufacturer or advertiser makes a claim as to the health or nutritional benefits of a particular product, such claim is properly and scientifically justified. It should be verifiable and should not give a false or misleading impression of the purported benefits of a particular food.
Let me also tell you what the proposal will not do. Under our proposal, no product would be banned, demonised or required to carry negative messages. No product would be banned from being advertised. Nor will it prevent manufacturers or advertisers from supplying information - it only aims to clamp down on "misinformation".
By clarifying when and how claims can be made the proposal will help the EU food industry by replacing the current divergence of national rules across the 25 Member States with a single set of rules. It will create not a more restrictive but rather a more liberal environment for both food manufacturers and advertisers whilst promoting fair competition.
And from the consumer perspective, introducing requirements for clear and accurate information is a question of empowerment of consumers. Making sure they can rely on the information they receive which in turn facilitates their choice of what to buy.
The second initiative is the adoption by the Commission of a proposal on the addition of vitamins and minerals to foods.
Not all EU citizens have a diet which provides all the nutrients they need. Food enriched with vitamins and minerals can make an important contribution to nutrient intakes.
This proposal will ensure that all foods which contain added nutrients would have to be labelled so that consumers are informed about their nutritional value.
And later this year the Commission plans to adopt a third proposal - one to revise the nutrition labelling rules. Today the provision of basic nutritional information on food is neither systematic nor easily understood by consumers.
To improve on this, our broad thinking is to propose mandatory labelling presented in a simple and easily-understandable format - to include a limited number of key elements such as energy (total calorie content), fat (including saturated fat), carbohydrates (including sugars) and salt.
Consultations with stakeholders and the Member States have taken place and my services are currently evaluating the impact of such legislation on industry, including SMEs.
Again the broad intention will be to help consumers - to empower them in making their choices of what to buy.
The main driving force behind the three initiatives is the need to ensure that consumers have the maximum amount of relevant and truthful information available to them. Unless consumers can rely on the veracity of food claims, for example, how can they realistically hope to achieve a balanced and healthy diet?
I should make it clear that what an adult individual chooses to eat and drink is of course entirely a matter of his or her personal choice. At the end of the day, if someone chooses to base their diet on pies or pizzas, that is their business. But I want to convince citizens that after quality, price and taste, health should be an important factor in consumer choice of food. That is why our efforts are all about empowerment. Giving citizens the information on which to make their own decisions in their own best interests.
Before I finish, I would like to say a few words about reactions to some of the initiatives I have described.
Take the food claims proposal for example. This has attracted widespread support from consumer groups but has received a fairly cool reception from certain sectors of the food industry.
And the idea of revising the nutrition labelling rules has prompted disquieting noises from certain quarters - 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.
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 an enthusiastic and proactive approach to these issues - and in particular the fight against obesity - to prove it acts in its customers' interests and not against them.
And I believe the food industry could and should go further - much further. Rather than playing catch up to shifting public attitudes, rather than appearing to be dragged reluctantly forward, it should be at the very forefront as regards the provision and the promotion of healthier diets.
The economic potential of "healthy foods" is enormous. The industry should seize the moment - force the pace. The promotion of foods with less fat, less sugar and less fat could easily catch the public mood and gain a massive market.
When I came into office the image of the food sector 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 stakeholders - industry, authorities, NGOs - in the food sector are again coming under close scrutiny - but this time for reasons of changing dietary needs and expectations of the modern European consumer.
We all need to take heed of the winds of change. We need to show that we take our responsibilities seriously as regards matters of public heath. We need to show that we are worthy of consumer trust - a trust which needs to be earned.