Speeches

Speech by Tim O´Malley, T.D., Minister of State with Special Responsibilities for Mental Health, Disability Services, and Food Safety – Progressive Democrats Conference

Ladies and Gentlemen,

It is a great pleasure for me to be here today to talk to you about an area in which everyone has an interest – food safety. As the Minister of State with responsibility for Food Safety, my primary concern is public health and the safety of food consumed by the public. Today I am delighted to talk to you about the “Good News” on food safety, in particular the numerous developments the sector has seen in Ireland and in Europe in the recent past.

Food safety is about protecting the public´s health first and foremost. For consumers, safety is the most important ingredient of their food. The food safety sector is one which has witnessed significant changes in recent years, with food safety now at the top of the agenda in Ireland and Europe. This is largely due to a chronology of food scares over the past few years – BSE and Dioxins to name but two – which have damaged consumer confidence in the safety of the food supply.

Food Safety Authority of Ireland

Governments have responded to consumer concerns in a number of ways and the Irish Government was one of the first in the European Union to respond by establishing an independent, science-based consumer-oriented food safety agency – The Food Safety Authority of Ireland.

The principal function of the FSAI is to ensure that food consumed, produced, distributed or marketed in the State meets the highest standards of food safety and hygiene available.

Managing the food chain so that the public has access to safe food requires an effective food safety programme. 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 FSAI is responsible for the enforcement of all food safety legislation and carries out its enforcement functions through “service contracts” with over 48 official agencies who undertake inspections and other enforcement actions on its behalf. This has ensured a co-ordinated multi-disciplinary inspection service throughout the food chain. The signing of new service contracts earlier this year has been a further milestone in the development of an effective food safety programme and ensures that Ireland has a powerful food control system at its disposal.

I believe that the establishment of the FSAI in January 1999 represents a major achievement in the area of food safety and consumer protection. Since its establishment the FSAI has contributed greatly to the development of a food safety culture in Ireland, reaching all sectors of the food industry from producers, to retail outlets and multi-national companies. All are now aware that being in the food business means they are also in the food safety business.

Food Safety Promotion Board

Ireland is in a rather unusual position in that there are two bodies dealing with food safety in Ireland – the Food Safety Authority of Ireland and the Food Safety Promotion Board.

In the context of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, an all-island agency with responsibility for the promotion of food safety – the Food Safety Promotion Board (FSPB), also known as Safefood, was established as one of the six North/South Implementation Bodies. Included in its functions are the promotion of food safety, research into food safety and the communication of food alerts.

The work of the FSAI and FSPB complement one another and together they ensure that the Irish consumer is among the best protected in the world.

Food Safety and the European Union

As much as we have changed our own approach in Ireland to food safety, 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. In 2000 the European Commission identified food safety as one of its top priorities.

The White Paper on Food Safety Published in January 2000 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 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 the highest possible 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, including Ireland, 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 Food 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. We can expect to see the impact of these developments in the coming years, as the proposals are adopted and transposed into national law.

I should draw your attention to the recently proposed regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on Official feed and food controls. This proposal was developed as a result of a review of the animal feed, the food and the veterinary sector. The proposed Regulation will consolidate and build on existing horizontal and sector specific legislation, so as to integrate controls at all stages of production and in all sectors, using “the farm to fork” principle. The main elements include, operational criteria, training requirements for control officials, laboratory requirements, rules for dealing with emergencies and import controls.

Ireland will be obliged to draw up and implement annual control programmes for both feed and food. This proposal will impact on everyone involved in food control and will require liaison with colleagues in the Department of Agriculture and Food, and other stakeholders. We can expect to see the impact of these developments in the coming years, as the proposals are adopted and transposed into national law.

European Food Safety Authority

The White Paper also included a proposal to establish a European Food Safety Authority – EFSA – which would be the cornerstone of EU policy on food safety, placing science at its centre. The proposal to establish EFSA responds to the belief that many of the past food scares experienced in the EU resulted from a fragmented approach to food safety. The establishment of EFSA addresses this weakness.

EFSA is an independent entity responsible for providing sound scientific advice and is now beginning to take up the full range of its functions. A major factor of its work will be networking and the sharing of information with national food safety agencies in Europe, in other parts of the world and with international organisations. EFSA will strengthen and co-ordinate the scientific basis of EU food safety policy and provide an independent voice at EU level.

It is clear that there are many changes on the horizon for those involved in food safety in Ireland. Indeed, during the forthcoming Irish Presidency of the EU in 2004 Ireland will be responsible for progressing and securing agreement on a number of EU food safety initiatives.

Conclusion

While I have concentrated today on the numerous achievements in the food safety sector In Ireland and in the EU, there is no room for complacency on such an important issue. The globalisation of our food supply, an ever lengthening food chain with an increasing number of players, presents more and more opportunities for things to go wrong. If the health of consumers is to be protected, we must demand vigorous national food safety control systems coupled with a commitment from all sectors of the food industry to the production of safe food.

This presents challenges to all involved in the food safety arena, but I am confident in their abilities to face and meet the challenges ahead.

Thank you.