Speech by Minister Pat the Cope Gallagher to the High–Level International Food Safety Forum, Beijing, Monday, 26 November 2007
Chairman, distinguished delegates – as the Minister with responsibility for Food Safety and Health Promotion in Ireland I would like to join with other speakers in thanking our hosts for their initiative in organizing this Forum and also for their hospitality.
I would like at the outset to express my support for the Beijing Declaration on Food Safety which is intended to be one of the outcomes of this Forum. The principles set out in the proposed Declaration are not new but it is important to take suitable opportunities to restate them – and this is one such opportunity.
The Establishment of a Food Safety Agency from Farm to Fork.
I have been asked to address you on the establishment of a food safety agency from farm to fork.
We have experience in this area which derives from the various crises of the late 1980s and early 1990s which besieged the European food industry. In response, Ireland was one of the first EU Member States to re-structure and modernise its food safety regime.
A key decision taken at the time was to establish the Food Safety Authority of Ireland (FSAI), in which the power to implement national food policy was vested. The establishment of the Authority integrated the numerous agencies which had previously operated independently but it allowed them to continue operating autonomously and it freed up the Department of Health and Children and the Department of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food to concentrate on the formulation of national policy and to represent Ireland’s interests at international level.
Alan Reilly, the Deputy Chief Executive of the Authority, who is here today as a member of the Irish delegation, will be dealing shortly with this issue in greater detail.
The background to the steps which we took at that time was the need to assure the consumer of the safety of the food they were eating – thus helping to safeguard public health as well as the interests of the food industry. I make no apology for referring to the interests of the food industry as it is an important stakeholder – it generates wealth, it provides jobs and it earns foreign currency.
However, change is seldom easy and one of the key issues that emerged in the process of establishing the Authority was, in my view, that a major restructuring of this nature involves little enthusiasm, and some resistance, among existing agencies. Also, change of this significance and complexity will not take place of its own accord – there is a need for strong political direction and for strong leadership which the Irish political process was able to provide.
I do not think that this potential problem is unique to Ireland!
The developments to which I have referred in regard to the modernization, restructuring and integration of our various food control agencies took place in a wider context. Ireland, as you know, is a member of the European Union, and the fact that we were one of the first Member States to act decisively on food safety left us well positioned to play an important role in the emerging European structures and we continue to be a significant player at this level. In addition, Ireland is very much involved in the work of Codex and we will continue to play our part in this important international work; however, for those of you not familiar with Ireland, I should point out that we have a population of 4.2 million (about the size of one of the smaller Chinese cities!) so there are some limits on what we can achieve.
Any effective approach to food safety 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. Both Ireland and China have adopted such an approach and this is evidenced by China’s recent White Paper on Food Quality and Safety and the formation of the Leading Team on Product Quality on Food Safety.
While we should never become complacent, I believe that the steps which we took have worked well and, through international organizations such as the WHO and the FAO and, indeed, at forums such as this, we have been willing to share our experience.
But we all have much to learn and it is important that we learn from other countries’ experiences and that we co-operate bilaterally and multilaterally to deepen our understanding of best practice and to identify future challenges.
Events such as this Forum give us a great opportunity to share our knowledge and experiences of food safety and to learn from others and this will lead to enhanced co-operation to protect consumer health and promote the healthy development of international trade in food and agricultural products.
While I am straying somewhat outside my brief, I would, on a personal basis, like to conclude by referring briefly to the excellent bilateral relations between Ireland and China which are underpinned by mutual respect, by cultural exchanges and by a trading partnership which benefits us both.
This is my first visit to the Peoples Republic of China and I hope it will not be my last.