Speech by Tim O´Malley, T.D., Minister of State to Annual Conference of the Environmental Health Service of the Mid-Western Health Board

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to open the second day of this conference. As Minister of State with responsibility for food safety, I am happy to be associated with occasions such as this. I have no doubt that the discussions here today will be of immense benefit and will be enjoyable for all present. I understand that yesterday´s discussions which dealt with tobacco control and with the National Environmental Health Action Plan (NEHAP) were very worthwhile. The inclusion of NEHAP on the programme was very timely indeed, as a draft plan has been circulated in recent days to all health boards for further observations and input. While on the subject I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Mid-Western Health Board for its work on NEHAP, through the active participation of Martin Nestor on the Review Group.

The theme of today´s session, Food Safety – the Future of Change, is an important one. Food safety is about protecting the public´s health first and foremost. For consumers, safety is the most important ingredient of their food. A chronology of food scares over the past few years has damaged consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply. To re-gain the trust of consumers, all sectors of the food industry must demonstrate a commitment to the production of safe food and must be seen to put the public´s health before profit.

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.

The last number of years have seen a significant change in the way the food control service in Ireland operates. The establishment of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland in 1999, and the introduction of the service contract mechanism, have ensured a co-ordinated multi-disciplinary inspection service throughout the food chain. The second round of service contracts are, of course, currently at an advanced stage of negotiation, and I am confident that these will be finalised shortly.

Evidence of your commitment to progress is not hard to find. In this regard I commend the Mid Western Health Board Food Control Service, on the accreditation of your Quality Management System and for being to the fore in the move to the new quality standard. Other agencies making up the national food safety inspectorate will, I hope, be encouraged by this achievement.

The efforts of food safety professionals in promoting a culture of compliance with legislation, has been fundamental to the progress made to date. I am particularly impressed with initiatives undertaken in the Mid-West such as the launch of an excellent HACCP manual and the organisation of HACCP seminars aimed at local businesses. I understand that these initiatives were hugely successful and all concerned should be rightly proud of this success.

As much as we have changed our own approach in Ireland to food control delivery, I think it is fair to say that the European Union has been, and will continue to be, the main driver of change in this area. The European Commission has identified food safety as one of its top priorities. The White Paper on Food Safety sets out the Commission´s plans for a pro-active new food policy: modernising food legislation into a coherent and transparent set of rules, reinforcing controls covering all aspects of food products from “farm to fork”, and increasing the capability of the scientific advice system, so as to guarantee a high level of human health and consumer protection.

One of the aims of the White Paper on Food Safety is to boost the competitiveness of the European food industry. However, it is, first and foremost, a major initiative designed to promote the health of Europe’s consumers by the establishment of world-class food safety standards and systems. The proposals in the White Paper are the most radical and far-reaching ever presented in the area of food safety and should fundamentally address consumers’ legitimate concerns in this regard.

Member States are currently engaged in the development and implementation of the major legislative programme set out in the White Paper. Substantial progress has been made on a number of proposals including the package of hygiene measures, the Labelling of Ingredients and Allergens, the use of Sweeteners in Foodstuffs, and on the new Smoke Flavourings Directive. Discussions are ongoing, or due to begin, on a range of other issues such as novel foods, food additives, fortified foods, and nutritional labelling to name but a few. As the officials responsible for the enforcement of food legislation, you can expect to see the impact of these developments in the coming years, as the proposals are adopted and transposed into national law.

It is clear that there are many changes on the horizon for those involved in food control activity in Ireland. Many of these changes are emanating from Brussels where Ireland is an active participant in the decision making process. You and your colleagues in other health boards have proved your ability to change as the need arises. This adaptability has allowed Ireland to develop a dynamic and forward-looking food control service and for this reason I am confident of our ability to face any future challenges.

In conclusion I would like to thank the organisers for the opportunity to address this conference and I wish you every success in your deliberations today.