Commission Speech (SPEECH/04/393), 7 September 2004
It is with pleasure that I am here to attend the final informal Agriculture Council of my mandate.
I am sure I speak on behalf of everyone here in thanking Cees Veerman and his services for organising such a convivial and interesting event.
I vividly recall taking office in late 1999 against the backdrop of the dioxin crisis; with a resurgence of BSE; and public confidence in the European food supply perhaps at its lowest ebb.
Today, there are clear signs that public confidence is returning. To take just one indicator, the price of beef has now recovered to pre-BSE levels.
We can all take pride in that the major overhaul foreseen by the White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000 is now largely complete, with the principal legislative structures in place, and EFSA fully functional.
Quite frankly, the progress we have made in the field of food safety has been nothing short of remarkable.
The Presidency has provided an interesting and thought provoking paper for debate.
At its core lies the question of responsibility in the food chain.
The General Food Law of the Union provides the answer - producers bear prime responsibility for ensuring safe food.
Based on that principle, it is up to national governments to determine, within their own sphere of influence, how to supervise compliance questions.
And this is where the emphasis shifts away from the European institutions towards your national administrations charged with ensuring the efficiency of the food safety system at ground level.
I therefore encourage all Ministers to ensure that the required action at national level is put in hand as early as possible.
For example, the national control plans under the Official Food and Feed Controls Regulation need attention now to ensure these will be ready in time to apply on the date of enforcement.
Development of the practical measures to implement the food hygiene package must also be given high priority. My services are working hard, with Member States, to develop the necessary implementing decisions.
Here I would stress once again the flexibility we have built into our rules to preserve the viability of the wide and wonderful range of foodstuffs produced within the European Union.
Such flexibility will enable certain local and other practices to continue, provided that the overall level of food safety is not compromised.
This is subsidiarity in action. Member States will take decisions on how to address the particular issues, subject to the requirements and notification procedures laid down in the hygiene package.
Finally on the new food safety system, I sincerely hope that the food industry will enjoy a sustained period of stability once the new systems and procedures have bedded down.
We do not wish to see the food industry in a state of constant flux, either as a result of crises, or due to continual regulatory reform. 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.
In this regard, there is one aspect of the Presidency paper to which, in particular, I wish to refer.
It states, "....In most Member States, food processing and distribution is nowadays dominated by a small number of large chains that increasingly operate as protectors of consumers' interests."
I think that we need to be very careful here so as to ensure that our assumptions are based on sound, empirical research.
Concentrations can, of course, be beneficial to consumers, but, equally, their unrestrained influence can be inimical to those interests which they allegedly serve.
Global trade will, clearly, change food patterns and bring a new dynamic to the European market.
And because the food industry is indeed a global business, underpinned by the regulatory provisions fixed by trading countries, 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 countries - for example on permitted levels of residues or contaminants - is almost bound to provoke problems.
Risk posted by food products are perceived differently throughout the world - some Europeans for example tend to believe that genetically modified products pose a danger while countries outside Europe grow and eat them for years without any known safety problem. Most food-borne diseases arise through microbiological contamination like salmonella and e-coli and yet worldwide their risks are underestimated. The elimination of zoonoses and bad hygiene practices should therefore be a major priority of all governments worldwide. In particular, over time, avian influenza could present a significant threat to public health world wide.
Therefore, I see it as challenge to move towards global risk assessment, accepted by all. With this goal in mind, one exciting development with significant potential is the new initiative I launched aimed at greater co-operation between our own EFSA and the FDA in the United States.
On the technical side we need to continue to seek common ground and guidelines at international level, notably through the Codex.
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.
And let me leave you with a final thought. If we ever reach the state of global risk assessment, and the required level of mutual trust, why should we stop there? Could we perhaps then envisage global risk management as a tangible possibility?
All this is, of course, very much for the future. We have come a long way together in the last five years. There remain many challenges, and an ambitious and forward-looking agenda is needed to maximise the possibilities of such ideas coming to fruition.