Editor’s note: These are the prepared remarks delivered by Vytenis Andriukaitis, European Commissioner for Health and Food Safety 2014-2019, this past week. Many of the challenges and actions he describes mirror situations in the U.S. with the Food Safety Modernization Act and other initiatives regarding food additives and labeling.
Ladies and Gentlemen,
It is a pleasure for me to participate here today in this STOA (Science and Technology Options Assessment) workshop. I want to use this opportunity to focus first on the European public’s relationship with food, with particular reference to matters of food safety, and then say a few words on food labelling and healthy diets.
People’s concerns and expectations about food have evolved significantly over recent decades.
The food crises of the late 1990s and early 2000s — especially the BSE and dioxin crises — triggered a collapse in consumer confidence and severely damaged the image of the entire European food industry.
This difficult situation inspired the root and branch reform of the European food safety system — the framework of which continues to serve us well today.
Indeed we promote our food safety system as a model for other regulators across the world — for the high levels of safety it brings and also as an enabling factor to facilitate international trade.
But sensitivity over food safety remains high. Food scares and food safety incidents will inevitably arise from time to time, and can easily damage a still fragile public confidence. A problem in one sector can easily affect confidence across a much wider field.
Public attitudes and concerns about food have certainly broadened in recent times. People expect and demand not only safe but also nutritious, healthy food produced in a sustainable and ethical way.
This is of course a welcome development, but in parallel, consumers have become increasingly risk-averse when it comes to food, tending to favor tradition over innovation.
This reticence to embrace new methods and approaches clashes with the need for food systems to evolve and make progress – in order to produce enough food to feed a growing world population from a finite or even shrinking area of agricultural land.
In addition there is the need to become more sustainable; to contribute to climate change efforts; to contribute to a circular economy; and also to reduce food waste.
These weighty objectives cannot be met without taking a positive, forward looking approach to food production, and this may require a more open attitude towards science and evidence-based decisions on new food products; on substances; and on new methods of food production.
How can we turn matters around?
How can we inspire confidence in carefully and meticulously considered scientific assessments, when many people are more likely to pay attention to an emotional and one-sided campaign conducted via social media?
Take pesticides for example. Plant protection products which are safe, efficient and sustainable are an important element for the production of safe and healthy food.
The EU approval system for pesticides is the strictest in the world. Our legislation requires applicants for the approval of a pesticide to prove – with an extensive amount of data — that their products are safe for humans and animals, and for the environment.
This data is subject to a thorough risk assessment according to the high scientific standards established by experts from the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the Member States, also taking into account all other open scientific literature of relevance, ensuring the broadest available information base.
In recent years, many substances have been withdrawn from the market or had their conditions of use severely restricted.
The stringent action taken on several neonicotinoids due to their adverse effects on bees is a very good example of where our regulatory system reacted quickly to new scientific evidence.
I would add that we are constantly striving to improve our regulatory system in the area of pesticides. Indeed, this is precisely the goal the Commission is seeking to achieve with its proposal, made in June, on criteria to identify endocrine disruptors.
With the draft criteria we are seeking to maintain a high level of protection of human health and food safety, using a more scientific basis than the interim criteria currently in place.
We are also pioneers as we are the first in the world to regulate in this field. I hope Europe will succeed in this difficult task and not fail to agree and just wait for the solution to come from elsewhere.
Let me add here a brief word about the regulation of food additives which can only be used if, on the basis of the scientific evidence available, they do not pose a safety concern to the health of the consumer.
The safety of all food additives is systematically assessed by EFSA. All the additives on the EU list are therefore considered safe for consumption under the detailed conditions of use.
The Commission has undertaken a broad re-evaluation program to review the use of certain additives and food colors to ensure the highest public health protection.
In order to take into account new scientific developments, all food additives granted permission before 2009 are subject to a new risk assessment by EFSA.
This is another example of the Commission striving to maximize safety using the latest science.
Yet despite all our efforts to ensure rigorous high safety standards and impartiality across these various issues, inevitably perhaps, controversy around a few substances risk leading to an erosion of public trust in our science-based systems.
This can be explained partly by an exaggerated perception of personal risk, stemming from the confusion of “hazard” and “risk” in public opinion, and partly by increasing suspicion over the independence of our risk assessment system.
This second issue arose strongly in the case of glyphosate where recurrent suspicions and allegations of conflicts of interest eroded confidence as regards the integrity of our structures and procedures.
Public wants guarantees
In most of these science-related issues, people tend to look for “black and white” answers where almost always a degree of “grey” — of uncertainty — is inevitable.
This uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people’s minds and can be exploited by the media to sensationally highlight certain risks, or latched onto by stakeholders or pressure groups trying to force a pre-determined position, such as against pesticides.
We must recognize that risk and uncertainty are part and parcel of every decision we take. We need to engage people in a serious and rational debate.
But in this world of information overload — from old media and new — information, misinformation, different opinions, prejudices, truths, half-truths and untruths all compete for public attention.
Of course, the Commission has to take the concerns of European citizens seriously and to address them properly — but that must be done without challenging the principles of taking decisions based on the best available science and in a transparent manner.
We need better communication of science so that people can be better informed about issues and risk management decisions.
We must fight the erosion and the misrepresentation of science so as to keep people abreast of developments, embracing new opportunities and overcoming the fear of change.
Let me move on to food labelling and efforts to better enable people to adopt healthier diets and lifestyles.
The EU Regulation of Food Information to Consumers comes fully into force in December, and includes a mandatory requirement for certain nutritional information on food labels.
This welcome development will make it easier for consumers to select foods compatible with their dietary goals.
We must remember, however, that today’s consumers look for food information not only from classical labels, but also from the digital world.
We should therefore give new technologies the space to develop and make sure, as they take shape, that they inform consumers as effectively as classical labels.
In addition, we increasingly face a wider challenge of how to respond to specific interests of consumers seeking more information — on quality; on origin or regional provenance of food; on production methods; and on how producers contribute to sustainability and to other societal objectives.
What is the role of science here? Firstly, to help us ensure that the information provided is robust and reliable; and secondly, to help us to understand how consumers assimilate and use such information.
Finally, a word on healthy lifestyles
Lifestyle-related risk factors are fuelling the rising burden of chronic diseases — directly affecting people’s quality of life and life expectancy. Such diseases also inflict a heavy burden on healthcare systems, on government budgets and on the economy.
We need to continue our actions to promote healthier lifestyles in Europe — including improving our diets and encouraging higher uptake of regular physical activity.
People’s desire and expectation for high-quality and affordable food is supplemented by their wishes for nutritional balance, sustainability and high welfare standards.
To help meet these desires and expectations we need to address both the demand side and the supply side of the food equation.
On the demand side, we know that consumers value convenience, and also that better education and labelling leads to better diets.
On the supply side, we should support further research and innovation in the field of food reformulation. And here, we have to ask the food industry to contribute to these efforts.
If we can successfully combine the efforts of scientists, regulators and industry, we can make the healthy option the easy option — thus improving health, along with the multiple benefits this will bring, and meeting the wishes and expectations of the discerning European public.
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