Commission Speech (SPEECH/11/526), 14 July 2011
Ladies and Gentlemen,
I am very pleased to be here and would like to thank the four regions involved in the organisation of this conference: Aquitaine, Emilia Romagna, Hessen and Wielkopolska.
The topic of our conference today is at the very heart of my mandate: food safety.
The food and drink sector is the single largest manufacturing sector in terms of turnover and employment in the EU and the second largest in terms of added value and number of companies. It is of vital importance to the EU economy.
This fact goes a long way to explain why EU food safety and quality standards are the highest possible and are adopted as benchmarks around the world. The EU is also the world's largest exporter and importer of food and drink products. In 2010, its food and drink exports were worth more than 73 billion euro.
However, we continue to face huge challenges in the area of food safety and quality. The economic crisis, increasing globalisation, climate change, increasing commodity prices and scarcity of commodities as well as socio-demographic changes are having a considerable impact on the food supply chain at every level.
Our mission as policy makers is to maintain a business environment in which the food sector can respond effectively to these challenges whilst ensuring that safety remains our starting point.
The Food “Hygiene Package” which entered into force in January 2006 consists of:
These constitute a mutually reinforcing set of rules to tighten and harmonise EU food safety measures whilst reinforcing the primary responsibility of food business operators to bear full and primary responsibility for the safety of food they produce.
Today it has become necessary to review the Hygiene Package:
The revision will be accompanied by an impact assessment to weigh up the economic or health consequences. Any such assessment will of course entail consultation of all stakeholders.
Indeed, our legislative process must be built on continuous dialogue between EU, national and local authorities. Cooperation with regions is crucial, as EU action must take account of regional interests and of the needs of producers at local level.
We must ensure that harmonised rules are correctly implemented. For this reason, the development and promotion of guidelines, best practices and initiatives aimed at reinforcing existing food legislation are at the core of our work.
Taking into account what I have just said it is a logical step to revise the Official Control Regulation.
The central idea underpinning the review of this Regulation is to simplify and clarify the existing system, improve efficiency and increase transparency and coordination amongst actors in the field of official controls.
To truly deliver a "farm to fork" approach in the area of controls, we intend to use the review to create a fully integrated approach to official controls across the entire food chain. Animal health and welfare are already covered by the Regulation; its scope will be widened to include plant health and seed rules.
The review will seek to ensure a more harmonised approach to import controls at EU level. In particular, it will aim to eliminate current fragmentation by creating a general framework, common to all goods that are subject to controls upon introduction into the EU.
Let me turn now to GMO cultivation and the proposal currently under discussion with the Council and the Parliament.
It was in acknowledgment of the strong local and regional dimensions of GMO cultivation that the Commission made the proposal to grant Member States freedom to organise GMO cultivation in their territory.
With the recommendation on co-existence of July 2010, it is now possible to take stringent measures to preserve organic or other types of production. Such measures may include the requirement to ensure greater distances between GM and other cultivation areas or large GM-free areas when other measures are not sufficient.
The legal proposal on GMO cultivation goes one step further and allows Member States to restrict or prohibit GMO cultivation in part or all of their territory. We are doubling our efforts to make sure that this subsidiary-based proposal is adopted as soon as possible. The first step was the adoption of the report prepared by Mrs Lepage on 5 July in first reading in the European Parliament. Now the Council has to take a position on this report.
More generally, the Commission is constantly seeking to improve the rigour of our GMO authorisation system, and in particular to reinforce the credibility and independence of EFSA.
In addition to basing our policies on the best available scientific knowledge, it is also critical for science, policy makers, stakeholders and society to engage in a constructive dialogue in order to develop a credible and inclusive risk assessment process.
Besides the comprehensive body of legislation on the food chain where 95% of the subjects are harmonised at EU level, there is also room for adopting soft laws to persuade food business operators to modify their practices.
The High Level Forum for a Better Functioning Supply Chain, created last year in November, is the Commission's response to this and other challenges such as improving the competitiveness of and increasing growth within the European Agro-food chain, and dealing with issues including sustainability, innovation, small and medium-sized enterprises and business to business relations.
The European Sustainable Consumption and Production Food Round Table is developing agreed methodologies to assess the environmental impact of food production and is developing suitable tools for informing consumers about these impacts. The Commission is closely involved in this process.
Through all of this work – legislative and non-legislative - we continue to promote the EU's Agro-food model. It only helps to ensure safe, high quality and affordable food, but also brings about improved competitiveness, innovation and environmental protection, increased regional development, and more extensive and harmonised implementation of good and sustainable practices while ensuring that food is produced taking account of concerns such as animal welfare.
Sustainability is a key issue and was one of the main themes addressed during the recent Green Week event on Resource Efficiency. As estimated by the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the world's population will increase to 9 billion people by 2050. To feed this growing population, global food production will need to increase by 70%.
This presents two major challenges: firstly, to produce more in order to balance food demand and supply; secondly, to produce and consume food in a sustainable way by reducing the environmental impacts and improving the food chain's resource efficiency.
One of our priorities for improving the sustainability of the food chain is reducing food waste without compromising food safety. This issue is of particular relevance in terms of its contribution to resource efficiency and global food security. Food waste is a striking example of inefficient use of resources: globally, about one-third of food produced for human consumption is wasted, representing approximately 1.3 billion tonnes of food waste per year, according to 2011 FAO estimations. A recent EU funded study estimated that in Europe about 89 million tonnes of food are wasted each year and that, without additional prevention policies, food waste could be expected to rise in Europe to about 126 million tonnes by 2020 representing an additional 40% to current figures.
We have therefore decided to focus our sustainability efforts on "Food Waste Minimisation" and "Food Packaging Optimisation". These two issues are closely linked because optimised food packaging can limit the generation of food waste.
Innovation is a key element in guaranteeing the sustainability of the food supply chain. Consumer preferences for quality, convenience, diversity of choice and health, and their expectations of safety, as well as of ethical and sustainable food production, present numerous opportunities for innovation.
Let me now deal with a topic which has been a priority on our agenda for weeks, a topic which clearly shows that ensuring high levels of food safety is a continuous challenge.
Lessons must be learned from the recent E-Coli crisis as such crises can have devastating public health and economic consequences.
The outbreak has confirmed the importance of full and efficient implementation of our safety standards and mechanisms to counter risks in the food chain. It also shows that information on alleged sources of infection must be supported by robust evidence to avoid spreading unjustified panic and creating problems for food producers.
As soon as the outbreak was detected, the Commission took action in order to tackle it by activating the Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed and the Early Warning and Response System.
Co-ordination and clear lines of communication remain core elements of effective handling of such situations. The Commission has held meetings with EU scientific bodies and public health and Food Safety Authorities almost on a daily basis. We also asked the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) to carry out an impact assessment which it completed in only two days.
The assistance of European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) experts in co-ordinating investigations carried out by the Member State Authorities was crucial to identifying sprouted seeds as the source of the outbreak.
Actions taken by our EU Reference Laboratory in Rome also bore fruit quickly. Within a week, the Laboratory developed a method to reduce the time needed to detect the E-Coli bacterium in food from about six days to 48 hours.
Notwithstanding the good work done, we must identify the right tools for better assessment of outbreak situations and improve communication of health concerns. This will help us to avoid incurring considerable economic losses which can result from such outbreaks.
We will continue to apply the principle that "prevention is better than the cure", on which the entire EU food safety legislative framework rests, by addressing risks to animal and plant health and, consequently, to human health by taking preventive action, promoting monitoring and surveillance, ensuring exchange of information between Member State Competent Authorities and further harmonising controls throughout the supply chain.
The forthcoming revision of animal and plant health law will further reinforce this approach.
Let me conclude by underlining that regions such as Aquitaine, Emilia Romagna, Hessen and Wielkopolska can facilitate better implementation of international-level policies by adapting them to the local level. They also play a decisive role in identifying opportunities for innovation and diversification.
Regions have a key role in raising consumers' awareness on issues of food safety and quality as well as in ensuring communication flows between EU citizens, EU Member States and the EU Institutions.
I fully expect that participation in this conference will heighten your awareness of the importance of the role of your regions in maintaining the high EU standards which are an integral part of our production system and a key to open up new market opportunities.
Thank you very much for your attention and I wish you a productive conference.