Speech by Dr. Tom Mofatt, T.D., Minister of State at the Department of Health and Children, on the occasion of the World Health Organisation, Regional Office for Europe´s meeting, in association with the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, on ” Systems for Improved Co-ordination and Harmonisation of National Food Safety Control Services”

Ladies and Gentlemen,

I am very pleased to have been invited here today to formally open this meeting. As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety I am always happy to be associated with initiatives aimed at raising awareness and standards in food safety and I have no doubt that the discussions here over the next two days will be of immense benefit to all participants.

It gives me particular pleasure to welcome participants from over thirty countries and officials from WHO Geneva and Copenhagen, and officials from DG Sanco in the European Commission to Ireland for this conference.

The theme of your meeting is an important one. Consumers are demanding protection for the whole food supply chain, from primary producer through to end consumer. This will only occur if all sectors in the chain work in an integrated way, thereby building consumer confidence in the safety of food products.

Managing the food chain so that the public has access to safe food requires an effective food safety programme, which sets the strategic direction for food control activities. The goal of a food safety programme is to safeguard the quality and safety of the total food supply, leading to a reduction in the incidence of food-borne disease and improvements in quality of life.

We are now living in a global village with more and more movement of people and goods. Consumer demands for a diverse range of foods at competitive prices have made food a global commodity. This presents a great opportunity for the European Union and other countries to work together with business interests. However, free trade has to be safe trade, therefore it is important that the required standards are reached by all players.

Every country needs an effective food safety programme in order to protect the health of the nation and to participate in the international trade of food. Trade is an important stimulus to a country’s economic development and in the current global economy, it is not possible for any one country to remain isolated from changing demands of international requirements for food safety regulation.

In Ireland, the Food Safety Authority was formally established by the Government in January 1999 honouring the commitment contained in the Government´s Action Programme for the Millennium, that an independent, science-based statutory agency with responsibility for food safety be set up. In July 1999, the FSAI took over responsibility for the enforcement of all food safety legislation which had prior to that date been the responsibility of a range of state agencies. This responsibility is discharged by means of service contracts with these agencies. The FSAI has a statutory function to foster at all stages of food production, from primary production through to final use by the consumer, the establishment and maintenance of high standards of food hygiene and safety. The FSAI is therefore not solely concerned with compliance with food safety legislation, it places great emphasis on the creation of a culture of food safety in Ireland.

In December 1998, it was agreed, in the context of the Peace Process in Northern Ireland and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, that an agency with responsibility for the promotion of food safety – the Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB) – would be established as one of the North/South Implementation Bodies. Included in its functions are the promotion of food safety and research into food safety.

The FSPB is seen as the Body with an over-arching role on the island of Ireland in relation to the overall promotion of food safety. The two existing enforcement agencies, North and South (Food Standards Agency, Northern Ireland, and the Food Safety Authority of Ireland) will continue to have responsibility for inspection and enforcement in their respective jurisdictions. However, the FSPB will work in conjunction with the two enforcement agencies. Its specific functions in relation to laboratories should greatly increase operational efficiency on the entire island of Ireland.

The new European Food Authority will be a body which all of the individual agencies in the EU Member States can look to for a co-ordinated response to risk assessment and risk communication. A sharing of scientific expertise on the assessment of risk is the way forward as pseudo scientific arguments cannot be allowed to exaggerate risks, misinform consumers and create artificial barriers to trade. Consumers require honest accurate information to enable them to make informed purchasing decisions.

Another important element is the work of DG Sanco’s Food and Veterinary Office audit team. This is crucial to ensuring compliance with EU legislative requirements both within Member States and in countries trading with the EU. The FVO missions present the opportunity for each country to benchmark their performance against the required standards in a climate of continuous improvement.

In particular, I would like to take this opportunity to extend a warm welcome to Ireland to the representatives from the candidate countries for EU membership. Their participation in this conference emphasises the importance of moving together towards enlargement of the EU. Enlargement presents the opportunity for increased prosperity and quality of life for all our citizens.

At the Gothenburg European Council last weekend, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs met the representatives of the applicant States, in particular to discuss the outcome of the referendum on the Treaty of Nice. The result of the referendum was of course a disappointment for the Government, and indeed for all those who wish to see the enlargement of the Union proceed smoothly. The Government is reflecting, in detail, on the causes of the No vote, and the concerns reflected in the result. It must be said that many of the reasons which appear to have led people to vote No were factors unconnected to the actual content of the Treaty.

One element of our reflection will be the establishment by the Government of a national Forum on Europe, which will seek to discuss, among a broad range of public opinion, the activities and direction of the European Union, and our relationship with it. Such discussions will undoubtedly be educational for all concerned and should lead to greater understanding of where Treaties such as Nice fit into the overall European framework. The Forum will help to address important questions relating to the future of the Union, in particular the issues of democratic accountability and the transparency of Union actions. It will also serve to highlight the opportunities that exist for mutually beneficial co-operation, such as those clearly seen through co-operation in the area of food safety.

Food safety is about protecting the public´s health first and foremost. A chronology of food scares has damaged consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply and in the ability of the regulatory agencies to police the industry. To re-gain the trust of consumers, all sectors of the food industry must demonstrate a commitment to the production of safe food. Food safety is not rocket science – it is about paying attention to detail at all stages of the food chain from farms to consumers. Production and processing systems must have in-built controls to ensure that a safe product emerges. Collaboration between countries is essential if problems, such as contaminated products are to be identified early and appropriate action taken before people fall ill.

Good surveillance systems are essential both nationally and internationally, to ensure that public health priorities are identified, emerging problems recognised early and corrective interventions can be evaluated. Data is needed on human disease, contaminants in food, and the health of livestock and safety of animal feed. Traceability of foods through the different stages of the food chain is needed so food businesses and consumers can be re-assured as to the purity and integrity of the products they are using.

People have the right to expect their food to be safe, of good quality and suitable for consumption. Food-borne illnesses are at best unpleasant – at worst they can be fatal. But there are other consequences. Outbreaks of food-borne illness can damage trade and tourism and can lead to loss of earnings, unemployment and litigation. Poor quality food can destroy the commercial credibility of suppliers, whilst food spoilage is wasteful and costly and can adversely affect trade and consumer confidence.

The task of ensuring the safety and quality of food is immense because of continuing research and product development. Creating standards that not only protect consumers, but also ensure fair practices in the sale of food and facilitate trade is a process that involves specialists in numerous food-related scientific disciplines. This process must also embrace industry, trade, and consumer groups as well as food control administrators.

In Ireland, as more people and interest groups become involved in the formulation of standards, so the role of the FSAI and its activities becomes better known and its influence strengthened and widened. Safe food, of high quality, with traceability and honest labelling is what the consumers demand and the industry and the agencies should be able to deliver on this. Safe food is fundamental to good health.

I wish the participants and conference organisers well in this very important topic.