High quality yet affordable food that tastes good, is safe to eat and is produced in harmony with the environment: most of us want it, but how do we achieve this utopian ideal on a large scale? A recent round table hosted by EU Commissioner David Byrne attempted to find answers, as just-food.com correspondent Aaron Priel reports.

The Round Table on Food Quality, Food Safety and Food Production, held in Copenhagen in December 2001, hosted representatives from EU member countries comprising farmers, industrialists, retailers, scientists, academics and especially consumers, with the objective of gathering broadly based views on food quality, safety and production.

David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer ProtectionIn his opening remarks of the discussions, David Byrne, European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, said that these views “will feed into our policy development in such diverse areas as the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy and new legislation on labelling.”

Commenting that the round table approach is novel in European terms and reflects the Commission’s developing thinking on governance within the Union, Byrne admitted that it would have been much easier to hold one, large conference in Brussels to discuss these issues, “but Franz [Fischler] and I wanted to get away from the predictability and formality of such an approach. We want to get direct input from stakeholders in each Member State in a confidential, round table, format.”

The European Union has been under the microscope for some years in relation to food production issues. BSE has, notably, put enormous pressure on the agricultural sector generally, and related food production and distribution sectors. “This situation has replicated itself in almost all European countries, with BSE itself, not to mention dioxin, sewage slush in animal feed, contamination of olive residue oil in Spain, to mention just a few of the scandals that have been to the fore. Denmark’s own attitude to BSE was transformed radically after the first case was discovered here,” Byrne said.

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European Food Authority

The White Paper on Food Safety, published by the Commission, is the blueprint for concrete action on food safety over the coming years. The white paper included the Commission’s ideas for the establishment of a European Food Authority. The enabling legislation to create the Authority has almost been finalised by the Council and the European Parliament, and is planned to be “up and running as quickly as possible in 2002.” While Byrne’s agenda has been heavily charged with safety issues looking into the future with the Authority, or looking after the present with new legislation to cope with the BSE crisis, the Commissioner commented that: “I have also commenced looking at wider issues of quality and production in the food chain. Our consumers are increasingly concerned with perhaps less tangible issues than safety. They expect safe food. They demand that food processors deliver on this. And they expect public authorities, at local, regional, national and European level to make sure that the inspection and audit of safety systems are carried out to exacting standards.”

The Commissioner added that consumers are now as much, or more, concerned with quality, taste, appearance, nutritional value and ethical values in regard to food, while demanding more and more variety. “They expect food to be produced and processed in accordance with good farming practices, with greater respect for the environment and the welfare of food producing animals,” noting that modern methods of production have brought new worries to the eyes of consumers.

Foot and mouth disease – getting people thinking

During the foot and mouth disease crisis, people witnessed the very fast spread of the disease across large distances. While no threat to public health was involved, consumers began to wonder about the need for such large-scale transport of animals. Many were made aware for the first time that this was a facet of the food production system, questioning the need for large-scale transport of animals, not to mention highly intensive farming practices. “People are also increasingly aware that the ‘footprint’ of modern agro-food production is very large in terms of its impact on the environment. They are asking how more sustainable methods can be developed, promoted and introduced,” Byrne said in his opening statement at the Copenhagen round table discussion.

He admitted that while these concerns are evidently developing, there are segments of the consumer population who are most concerned about the price they pay for food than with broader questions. “How can their concerns for cheap food be met if quality standards are to be driven at significant cost? Or is there a trade off between higher quality standards and retail demand? How can people tell if one product is better quality than the next? Or, are consumers dependent on price alone as a determinant of quality?” he queried. Byrne asserted that these are crucial questions and crucial issues for the development of this debate, being important issues for producers, distributors and retailers, all which prompted the Commission to pose the following questions:

  • What are the dimensions of quality food produce and how does quality relate to price?
  • Does the food-retailing sector satisfy consumer demand for safe, quality food?
  • The Commission sought the views of the citizens through the Eurobarometer opinion poll service. In the latest survey the Eurobarometer from June, the citizens were asked, “What should the European Union use its agricultural policy for?

The answers, ranked by priority, were:

  • 90% of European citizens want the EU to ensure that agricultural products are healthy and safe. This is no surprise given that the survey was carried out shortly after the outbreak of the second BSE-crisis
  • 89% say that we should promote the respect of the environment
  • 82% of citizens want us to protect small farms
  • 81% of citizens expect the EU and its producers to adapt production to consumers’ expectations
  • 78% want the EU to make European agriculture more competitive on world markets, and
  • 75% of European citizens want the EU to encourage the diversification of agricultural products and favour organic production.

“As can be seen, the concerns of European citizens are hard to reconcile. A greater market orientation may conflict with enhancing farmers’ incomes. And environmental or animal welfare standards might not be compatible with the need to reduce retail-level costs.” The survey provided the Commission with “food for thought,” as another contribution to the ongoing quality debate.

Byrne commented that the Commission decided that the mid-term review of the Common Agricultural Policy next year should reward quality rather than quantity, suggesting that this could be done, for example, by encouraging the organic sector or other environmentally friendly farming methods, and a further shift in support from market supports toward rural development. “Centre stage must be consumer interests. The interests of consumers must be placed first. Modern agro-food producers can only succeed if that is the case,” Byrne concluded.

By Aaron Priel, just-food.com correspondent