Minister of State Pat the Cope Gallagher’s Speech to Seanad Éireann on Government Policy on Food Safety and Health Promotion – Thursday, 8 November 2007

In my role as Minister for Food Safety and Health Promotion I welcome the opportunity to address the Seanad on these two topics.

We live in a society in which the availability of fresh, wholesome, varied but, above all, safe food is taken for granted.  There is no doubt that standards of production and distribution of food have improved very significantly and we can now walk into shops in almost any part of the country and buy foodstuffs whose existence we would not have been aware of only a generation ago.  In addition, foods – such as oranges and bananas (and I am conscious that I am showing my age here) – which were once very infrequent treats are now a completely un-remarked on part of our daily diet.

These welcome developments have, however, given rise to their own challenges and I will address this issue later in my speech.

In this new period of prosperity previously exotic foods are consumed routinely and increased affluence has led to more foreign travel and greater attendances at restaurants; our palates have become more sophisticated and our tastes more varied. Consequently, the food industry has expanded very significantly.  Indeed, according to An Bord Bia, the total turnover of Irish food and drink for 2006 was almost €20 billion. The agriculture and food industry is now Ireland’s largest indigenous sector and agriculture alone currently employs 109,000 people. It accounts for over half of Ireland’s indigenous exports, contributes significantly to rural development and represents almost one tenth of the Irish economy.

Against this background, the need to assure the consumer of the safety of Irish food, thus helping to safeguard public health as well as the interests of this industry, has reached a new level of importance. It has also reached a new level of complexity.  It is necessary to meet this challenge with a proactive, long-term approach, with the provision of a robust legislative framework and through the provision, and efficient use, of resources within this framework.

This approach must be guided by science, while being informed by the needs of the food industry’s key stakeholders – producers, processors, caterers, retailers, and, most importantly, consumers.

You will no doubt recall that, in the late 1980s and early 1990s, in the wake of various crises that besieged the European food industry, Ireland was one of the first EU Member States to re-structure and modernise its food safety regime.

The establishment of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, in which the power to implement national food policy was vested, freed up the Department of Health & Children and the now-Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to concentrate on the formulation of national policy and to represent Ireland’s interests at international level.

While we should never become complacent, I believe that this arrangement has worked well. Some of the major achievements since this restructuring include a dramatic decline in the numbers of BSE cases in the national herd which is largely due to the strict enforcement of food safety controls throughout the food chain.

There has been an increase in the number of food premises that have put in place food safety management system based on the principles of the Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Point systems (HACCP) as required by law.

There has been a reduction of salt levels in processed foods in partnership with industry and also a reduction in the incidence of Salmonella in poultry flocks and in eggs produced in Ireland.

These are just some examples of the progress that has been made.

In my view, there are two key areas in food safety – firstly, guaranteeing to the extent that this is possible that food is safe and secondly, providing clear, accurate information to the consumer regarding what he or she is eating.

Almost all our food legislation now originates at EU level and one of the key changes currently being faced by all stakeholders in the food chain is the implementation of the new hygiene regulations – these new regulations represent the single biggest change in food legislation in recent years. The new legal obligations impact on every single food operation in Ireland of which there are now some 44,000.

The cornerstone of the new regulations is the requirement for traceability in the food chain. The need for traceability in the food chain is something that is widely discussed in the media and in many different sectors of industry.  In particular, traceability helps facilitate the withdrawal of food and enables consumers to be provided with targeted and accurate information concerning implicated products. Current regulations require food business operators to have a “one-up” and “one-down” system for traceability; in others words they must keep records of whom they purchase products from and to whom they sell these products.

Well developed traceability systems provide food business operators with more than just the ability to withdraw or recall food effectively if required.  Being able to ensure the provenance of food and being able to satisfy consumers who need to know where their food comes from is also much easier.  While traceability is a legal requirement, it also makes good business sense. There are few things worse for a food business operator than to have to recall its product in the full glare of the media and the associated public attention that goes with these events. It is at the time of such crises that advance planning is of major benefit and those companies which have crisis management plans in place will usually be able to limit reputation damage and economic loss.

In regard to the provision of information, food labelling should provide sufficient information to help the consumer make an informed purchasing decision. Proper labelling should encourage healthier food choice and may provide industry with incentive to reformulate foods that are less healthy – for example, those containing large quantities of Trans Fatty Acids.

This Government recognises the need for well-regulated labelling of foodstuffs.  Both the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food have produced a significant body of work in this area. In the last two years, four pieces of EU labelling legislation alone have been transposed.  At national level, 2006 saw the enactment of primary legislation under which the beef labelling requirements on country of origin were extended to the catering sector.

This year, there has been a consultation programme, culminating in draft national legislation, on Country of Origin labelling. This legislation is intended to extend mandatory country of origin food labelling to sheep, pig and poultry meats.

The two Departments are working closely together to progress this proposed legislation. It will, of course, be necessary to notify the draft legislation to the European Commission to allow the Commission and other Member States an opportunity to comment.

While much work has been done in the area of labelling by Government Departments it must be recognised that industry has a responsibility as well.

With this in mind the Food Safety Authority of Ireland recently produced a new report on food labelling in Ireland and implemented a national campaign to highlight the importance of correct food product labelling. The report The Labelling of Food in Ireland 2007 aims to dispel confusion as to what a food label should contain. It will ultimately assist food businesses to ensure correct labelling and will benefit consumers by enabling them to make informed purchasing decisions based on accurate, clear food labelling information.

The 140-page report brings together in detail all Irish and European law governing the labelling of food. It provides specific information and guidelines relating to the labelling of food with regard to ingredients, additives, storage instructions, nutritional labelling, novel foods and genetically modified foods.

In addition, special sections cover organic food labelling, and the specific requirements of commodities such as beef, chocolate, fruit juices, and milk and sugar products.

As with all areas of food safety, there is an international dimension to this work. At present EU food labelling legislation is harmonised by Council Directive 2000/13/EC. That directive was transposed into national legislation in 2002. To date, there have been 7 amendments to the transposing Regulations which apply to the labelling of pre-packaged foodstuffs for sale to the ultimate consumer, or for supply to mass caterers, and are based on the principle that food labelling should not mislead consumers.

While food labelling should be clear, consistent and understandable, the current diversity of legislation, coupled with the range of Regulations and Directives in force, represents a complex and potentially confusing matrix.  Therefore it has been recommended that the provisions currently spread across a number of texts be recast into a single simplified text. At EU level a Working Group has been set up to consider changes to legislation in this area as part of the Commission’s overall review of the food labelling legislation.  Ireland submitted its particular concerns on food labelling to the Commission as part of this process.  It is intended that the Commission will present the outcome of the Working Group’s deliberations to the European Parliament in December next.  Both Departments will be working closely with the European Commission on this issue.

I made reference earlier to the increased complexity of the food safety area. This is exemplified by the advent of genetically modified foodstuffs, GMOs. While, traditionally, Ireland adopted a “precautionary but positive” approach, the Irish public appears to be divided on this issue. Government policy in this area is currently being re-evaluated to ensure that, as much as possible, the views of both supporters and opponents of GMOs are taken into account.

I also mentioned at the outset of my speech that there were some areas of concern in regard to health promotion.  In general, there is much crossover between food safety and health promotion.

The importance of making an informed choice regarding food is emphasised by current research which suggests that just under 30% of cancer deaths are potentially avoidable by the modification of diet. This makes diet second only to tobacco as a preventable cause of cancer.

To help the consumer to modify his or her diet for the better, since the early 1990s the Health Promotion Unit of the Department of Health and Children has co-ordinated an annual National Healthy Eating Campaign, which aimed to promote awareness of specific healthy eating messages and to provide practical information to the general public. These campaigns have enhanced public awareness on healthy eating guidelines on fruit and vegetables, fibre, low fat and being a healthy weight. The Department of Health & Children is currently developing a National Nutritional Strategy.

Healthy eating is just one component of health promotion. The World Health Organisation states that regular physical activity is a significant element in cancer prevention and control. There is consistent evidence that some form of regular physical activity is associated with a reduction in the risk of colon cancer.  The protective effect of physical activity on cancer risk improves with increasing levels of activity. Twelve physical activity co-ordinators have been appointed in the HSE and structures have been put in place to provide advice and support in a number of settings, including schools, workplaces and communities, targeting in particular the young and older people.

The Irish food environment has changed much in recent years and will, I am sure, change further in years to come. The robustness of our food safety system has been severely tested, and will be tested again. So far, it has passed the test and I am confident it will pass any future tests.