Health Supreme by Sepp Hasslberger

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September 30, 2003

EU Commissioner snubs nutrition

26 September 2003 - Kinsale, West Cork, Ireland

The Consumer and Health Commissioner of the European Union, David Byrne, in a recent address to a group of business leaders in his home country, Ireland, has spent ample time and many words talking about food quality and food safety but strangely, the word nutrition did not cross his lips.

How can we assert food to be "safe" or of "high quality" if we do not address the issue of what it contains - how nutritious it is? Food is one of the major determinants of health, a fact that has been amply demonstrated and is recognized by the EU Commission. So what interests is Byrne afraid of crossing? Possibly the interests of the pharmaceutical business with our diseases? Could they have so much clout as to be able to ban the concept of nutrition from official discussions of food?

A friend in the UK has commented on Byrne's speech as follows:

Fascinating! Two thousand two hundred and nine words on the subject of quality and safety of food spoken by our venerable European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, and not one mention of the word 'nutrition.'  

In Byrne's world, it would seem, the word 'quality', when applied to food, has nothing at all to do with its' nutritional value. Explains a lot really, doesn't it? Byrne's speech also goes a long way towards explaining the remarkable claim made recently by the Commission in the press-release on the draft EU regulation on nutrition and health claims made on food which states that "the basic principle in nutrition is that there are no 'good foods' and 'bad foods' but rather 'good diets' and 'bad diets'. Reassuring for producers of fast-food and their customers, but yet another example (and a particularly pernicious one, at that) of the Commission's tendency to spread misinformation on the subject of health.

Interesting also to see his statement that "in order to serve consumers and also the needs of small-scale producers, I sought to ensure that my proposals would not inadvertently stifle small, local, traditional food producers." This simply begs the question why were small-scale producers of food supplements not afforded similar protection from the EU Food Supplements Directive?

Far from being a protector of our health, Byrne and his colleagues now appear to be one of the biggest risks to it.


I have to agree with Paul here, but then - when Byrne talks about food safety and quality, he is concerned with markets, rather than our health - at least that is the feeling one gets when reading the concluding remarks of his speech:

"As I have said, the future success of food producers will become ever more dependent on quality underpinned by safety.  But these elements are not enough to guarantee success.   Markets have to be won.

You are ideally placed to profit from the excellence of the food you produce by furthering the standing of the West Cork brand  locally, nationally, within the European market, and indeed the world market."

SPEECH/03/435 - David BYRNE

European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection

"Local production in a globalised market"

West Cork Leader Seminar

Kinsale, 26 September 2003 Ladies and Gentlemen,

First may I say what a pleasure it is for me to be here in Kinsale to address your seminar.

As you can imagine, I am asked to speak at many events, most of which are held in cities.  So it is a breath of fresh air  in more ways than one  to venture further afield, and in particular into the Irish countryside.

Of course, having spent a very hot summer here, I have been able to taste and sample the excellence of locally produced foods and experience at first hand the expanding range of such produce in the local markets.

Furthermore, I welcome the opportunity to address an audience with a large contingent of small and medium sized food producers  to speak to you directly about some of the obligations, but more especially the great
opportunities that arise from the changing face of food production in Europe.

And that change is nothing short of fundamental.

In particular, the concept of quality has risen steadily up the agenda in recent years and this trend will undoubtedly continue.

No cap on quality

The milestone agreement on reform of the Common Agricultural Policy, achieved in June of this year, marks the dawn of a radically different model for agricultural support.  It confirms the shift in emphasis away from quantity and towards the promotion of quality production.

Quality is a complex concept  difficult to define in a simple, all-embracing manner.  In addition to the long-established concepts of taste, appearance and texture it covers additional aspects such as the method of production, and environmental or animal welfare considerations.

In effect, quality is largely defined by the consumer  by what he or she chooses to buy.  In this broad sense it is not defined by law.

This was the clear message coming from the year-long European Round Table on Food Quality that I conducted in close collaboration with my Commission colleague, Franz Fischler.

We were forcibly struck in our visits around all of the Member States, including here in Ireland, that consumers were demanding ever-higher standards of quality in foodstuffs.  They were also demanding greater diversity.

And local and traditional food production was coming to the fore of consumer's agenda.

I am sure that you will be glad to learn that the European Commission does not intend to create European-wide standards for food quality.  Such an approach would be counter-productive.  This is an area in which a "one size
fits all" approach would be wholly inappropriate.  It would force the hand of producers rather than leaving them free to innovate and excel, and genuinely respond to consumer demand.

Europe has a rich diversity of cultures which gives rise to a wide and wonderful range of foods.  Uniformity of quality would nullify this variety to the detriment of all.

That is why West Cork Leader has such an important role in fostering and promoting local excellence, encouraging people to exploit their skills and the superb local, raw materials.

Food safety

But before we can address food quality, we first have to consider food safety.   This is the starting point  the essential pre-condition from which quality can follow and thrive.  Without safety, quality is a non-starter.

I have devoted considerable time and energy to food safety in the four years since my appointment as Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection.

I need hardly remind you that at the end of the last decade the image of the food industry in the eyes of consumers was perhaps at its lowest ebb following a succession of damaging food crises.  Trust in the food industry to deliver safe food to consumers had dipped to an all time low.

And although those crises only directly affected certain sectors, the industry as a whole suffered as a result.

Against this backdrop, the time was ripe to crystallise a new vision for food safety aimed firmly and squarely at putting the consumer first and regaining consumer confidence.

That vision was set out in my White Paper on Food Safety of January 2000, which provided a list of actions to establish a new system fit for the new millennium.

Nearly four years later I am pleased to be able to say that we are well on course to complete this ambitious task.

The landmark Regulation laying down the general principles of food law, encompassing the farm to fork approach, has now been in force for nearly two years.

The European Food Safety Authority is up and running, and poised to provide assurance to consumers that scientific advice on food safety issues will be made objectively and independently  visibly free from political influence or industry persuasion.

And, crucially, EFSA will publish its scientific advice, so that consumers and industry alike can see the scientific basis for the risk management decisions taken by the Commission.

In addition to the general food law, new carefully targeted legislation is now in force, or coming into force soon, covering a whole range of food safety issues.

New, tough rules on GM food and feed were recently adopted.  Measures on TSEs; animal by-products; labelling of feed, undesirable substances in feed; pesticides; and the withdrawal of antibiotics have all been introduced.

And a number of important proposals are currently before the Council of Ministers and the European Parliament, which I hope will be agreed in the near future.  A proposal on feed hygiene and one for a revised system of official controls have started their passage through the legislative process.

Food hygiene package

Another major initiative under the food safety umbrella is the food hygiene package, proposed in July 2000, which will be of particular interest and relevance to many of you here today.

This package of four legislative acts will merge, harmonise and simplify EU hygiene legislation currently covered in 17 separate Directives.  We are hoping for final adoption of the complete package in May of next year.

You may well ask  "What will it mean for me and my business?"   A fair question.

The key point is that food operators will bear full and prime responsibility for the food they produce.  This principle of responsibility is the underlying thread running through the entire food hygiene package  from the primary producer, right through the supply chain and right up to delivery or purchase by the final consumer.

Safety must be ensured by the implementation of hazard analysis and control principles (or HACCP principles as they are commonly known).  Many of you will already be using HACCP, or variants thereof, as part of your own
production system.


In making the proposals for food hygiene the need to protect diversity was utmost in my mind.

As I have said, European consumers demand not only safe foods, but also increasingly seek out a wide variety of high quality products.  Real variation often stems from local, regional or geographic considerations.  Europe has an unrivalled variety and diversity of such products - a strength that I was determined needed to be nurtured and fostered.

So in order to serve consumers and also the needs of small-scale producers, I sought to ensure that my proposals would not inadvertently stifle small, local, traditional food producers.

This is to be achieved by including provisions in the legislation for appropriate flexibility so as not to hamper the activities of our more vulnerable producers.

For example  the direct supply (by the producer) of small quantities of primary products direct to the consumer or to local retail establishments will be excluded from the scope of the new legislation.

Also, the legislation will include flexibility for adaptations of the strict food hygiene requirements to apply to certain traditional methods of production, and for food businesses situated in remote areas.  And, flexibility will also be provided for certain infrastructure requirements - often a key issue for small, traditional producers.

In accordance with the principle of subsidiarity, we recognise that the Member States are best placed to determine many solutions to be applied to particular local situations  subject to the important proviso that the level of food safety should not compromised.

Member States wishing to apply such adaptations will need to inform the Commission and all other Member States of their intentions in this regard.

If there are no objections, the adaptations will be approved and can be applied.  Where necessary, and where comments or reservations are expressed, the Commission will decide on whether the proposed national solution in question can go ahead.

Criticism is sometimes levelled at so-called "one size fits all" approaches.  I have no hesitation in stressing that for the food safety level, there is only "one size".  That is a clear demand and right of our consumers.  But on the practicalities of achieving that level, we have built in the maximum flexibility possible.

This is I believe good news for small and medium sized business, many of your business represented here today.

I should add that this type of approach is not completely new, as current hygiene legislation already takes into account traditional products.

An important example can be found in the dairy sector.  Most Member States produce some form of traditional cheese.

In many cases these are made from unpasteurised milk, for which production methods may not reach every EU hygiene requirement, but for which alternative safeguard guarantees can be approved.

The new CAP

Allow me now to return to subject of the newly reformed Common Agricultural Policy.

The future CAP will be much more in tune with the interests of consumers, while continuing to offer support to farmers and to strengthen rural communities.

It is a vital step towards helping EU farmers to become more market oriented and competitive both within the internal EU market and on world markets.

Despite the failure of the WTO talks in Cancun, the years ahead can be expected to bring increasing liberalisation of the trade in agricultural products.  This will mean that quality and added-value are likely to become increasingly important ingredients for future success, both on the domestic and export market.

If a producer wants to raise his or her standards  to improve quality or produce professionally branded products, we recognise that he or she will need to invest.  Many producers would need a certain level of support, seed capital if you will, in order to make these type investments.

And this is precisely what the EU is doing through its Rural Development policy.

The Rural Development policy, as strengthened by the CAP reform agreement, will provide new elements of support with effect from 2005.

I have championed these reforms in the interests of small and local producers.

I recognise that it is difficult to get a small business up and running, while at the same time taking care that every single of detail set out in domestic or EU legislation is complied with fully.

Take food quality, for example.

Under the new Rural Development pillar of the reformed CAP, incentive payments will be available to farmers who participate in recognised schemes designed to improve the quality of agricultural products and the production processes they use.

Support for producer groups will also be available for activities aimed at informing consumers and promoting products produced under particular quality schemes.

In addition, temporary and degressive support will be available to help producers adapt to the introduction of higher standards concerning the environment, public, animal and plant health, and animal welfare.

Aid levels will be adjusted to take account of the impact of additional obligations and operating costs associated with a particular new standard.  Aid will be payable on a flat rate, degressive basis for a maximum of five years.

Again, these are important provisions that can benefit, for example, members of West Cork Leader so as to further improve safety, marketing and quality standards.


Ladies and Gentlemen, I have almost concluded my remarks this afternoon.

But before doing so let me express my admiration for the initiative of the West Cork Leader co-operative, the Clean Technology Centre and AMT in organising this seminar.

It is heartening to see  especially in my home country  that environmental responsibility is seen as a vital element for a sustainable as well as profitable future. And the West Cork Leader project is a model example of how a co-operative approach to encourage regional branding can boost the potential for success for all its participants.

I do believe that your initiative in fostering local and traditional produce in a sustainable way can also assist some, and hopefully many, to break onto wider markets.  And I would not confine your ambitions to just the Irish market.

From my knowledge of your endeavours, I believe many of you could reasonably set your sights on breaking into markets beyond the island of Ireland.  Some of you do this successfully already and I expect that there will be more success stories.

As I have said, the future success of food producers will become ever more dependent on quality underpinned by safety.  But these elements are not enough to guarantee success.   Markets have to be won.

You are ideally placed to profit from the excellence of the food you produce by furthering the standing of the West Cork brand  locally, nationally, within the European market, and indeed the world market.

I wish you all a successful, profitable and sustainable future.

Thank you for your attention, but more especially, for your invitation to be with you here today.

See related articles:

Aspartame - a health threat the Commission should be investigating.

Cancun - how the EU farm subsidy policies (called "CAP" by Byrne) scuttled the trade talks.

European Food Supplements Directive - a legal challenge. This is about nutrition, our health and all the things Byrne did not mention in his speech.

Pharma cartel accused of genocide - to give you an idea of why Byrne may be so studiously avoiding treading on pharma's toes - why he won't even mention health and nutrition in connection with food. Those corporations have clout!


posted by Sepp Hasslberger on Tuesday September 30 2003
updated on Tuesday December 21 2010

URL of this article:





Readers' Comments

Hello Josef,

I wonder if you know if anyone formally advised the Sciebtific Committee on Food that its opinion of 5th March on reference value for nutrition labelling is absurd.

While nutrition is of course vital in discussing food, if the so-called reference values (RDAs,PRIs etc) are flawed then where is the consumer to look for guidance.

Please add my name to your mailing list.
Thank you,

Posted by: Robert Pocock on October 1, 2003 05:11 PM


Dear Robert,

I have added your name to my (internal) list for occasional notification of posts that are of major interest to the people concerned with health matters. If you want to be advised of all posts, you can subscribe to the notification service run by "Bloglet" (on the upper right hand corner of each single page on the site). If you decide to do so, tell me so I can remove you from the first list, otherwise you'll get some doubles.

With regard to the Scientific Committee of the EU and their reference labelling values, they are based on the RDAs or PRIs. What makes the RDAs/PRIs so low is the philosophy behind them. They are population based minimum figures for nutrient need to keep away the recognized vitamin and mineral deficiency diseases.

They do not take into account biochemical individuality.

They do not take into account optimal nutrition.

They do not take into account any deficiencies but the most extreme.

What is wrong with them is not that they exist, but the use being made. They should be an instrument of control to see whether with a typical diet, you can get the minimal amounts of vitamins and minerals, and alarm bells should go off when a part of the population does NOT get these minimal amounts in their food.

They instead have no use in determining whether a product (such as a supplement) should be on the market or not, or should be freely available or restricted as a medicine. Yet, this is the use being made of these (RDA/PRI) levels.

They are used in labelling which is fine, but it should be clearly explained that these levels are the absolute minimum necessary (not something to "work up to" at our leisure). If we have less than these levels, red alarm bells should go off, instead the impression that is being made by using them for labelling is that it's "quite ok to have a little less - RDA's are all you really need".

So we are dealing here with the official "nutrition philosophy" which is completely skewed, as demonstrated by Byrne's speech where nutrition does not figure at all.

Kind regards

Posted by: Josef Hasslberger on October 1, 2003 05:54 PM


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