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News release

David Byrne, EU Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection (16.9.03)

European Publishers Council Seminar for journalists

My portfolio and the media

  • Food Safety, Consumer Protection and Health. These broad topics have high media interest and attention: For example - BSE, foot and mouth-disease, chicken flu, dioxin, SARS, GMOs.
  • These areas are very close to what matters to people ? "relay" role of media is therefore very important for me.
  • Role of consumers is significantly strengthened by the media - often media is a close ally of consumer concerns.
  • Reporting in the media about developments within my portfolio, however, varies widely. And there is often a gap between reality and perception.

Let me give you a few examples:

1. BSE

At the height of the crisis in the winter of 2000/2001, BSE was for weeks on page 1 of the newspapers and the first topic in radio and television news. Many consumers stopped eating beef. Their perception of the risk related to beef was very high. Consumers did not believe it was safe - they received conflicting messages from the media.

The reality was that beef at that particular time was the safest EU consumers had been offered for a very long time - as the most important protection measure (removing so-called specific risk material tissues like spinal cord) was already in force. The main threat had passed.

But of course this was not a story!

The Commission had tried to pass this protection measure through the Council of Ministers for about 3 years - but Member States without BSE were reluctant to agree to it because they felt that to do so would amount to admitting that BSE could exist on their territory.

Many times we tried to get media support for our proposal, but with little response.


2. Another example - Chicken flu in spring 2003 in the Netherlands and Foot-and-mouth disease in UK, France, Ireland and Netherlands in spring 2001.

FMD in spring 2001 led to the slaughter of 3,5 million animals. It was again a top story in the media. The outbreak of chicken flu led to the slaughter of 25 million chickens this spring. There is no comparable death toll of any animal disease we have had in the European Union. Despite that, it more or less remained unnoticed outside the Netherlands.

In autumn 2002 we held a press conference to mark a new law to control and prevent FMD, which took into account the lessons learned from the 2001 outbreak. A grand total of 10 journalists attended. The story was dead.


3. Another example - this time in the field of health - SARS, tobacco and flu

About 500 000 people die every year of smoking or smoking-related diseases. The economic costs for health care mount up to billions of EUROs. A simple flu epidemic can result in thousands of deaths. These facts attract little media attention.

But when SARS was discovered this year - leading to the deaths of around 800 people worldwide and just 1 in Europe - it hit the headlines and stayed there for a month. People stopped travelling to Asia - yet their daily risk of catching an equally dangerous influenza virus on public transport was, and remains, much higher.

• I think these examples speak for themselves. I do not want to criticise the media for such reporting. I understand it fulfils news criteria.

• However, it often makes it difficult for politicians to pursue long-term policies which do not act/react to daily news events.

• Additionally, the moment something is deemed to be newsworthy all kinds of players use the media to get attention: I get requests from Parliament, from lobbyists, from national governments - all those requests serve either the need of a particular constituency, a national public or again national media and address of course a particular audience under a particular national angle. But that does not necessarily mean they are necessary or helpful in resolving an EU-wide problem.

• But this is my task and I have to pursue the matters of continuing importance regardless of whether or not they are exciting the media. My job is to propose and implement policy proposals which take into account what people need - then discuss and amend these proposals with Parliament and Ministers - for the long-term benefit of European society.


Issues affecting media business:

• Let me turn to some issues in my which affect media businesses directly.

• Most of these proposals concern advertising.


Regulation on unfair commercial practices:

• The proposal follows two years’ consultation. Because all our proposals are discussed and amended in consultation with industry and consumer organisations before they are even proposed.

• The result - if adopted - would be a first EU-wide ban on unfair business-to-consumer commercial practices - a ban which goes beyond advertising and marketing rules, but obviously this is the area where media business is most concerned.

• What will this mean in practice?

• It means for the first time EU-wide regulation of aggressive practices. This will enable action to be taken against traders who lure holidaymakers to remote locations and bully them into paying money into holiday clubs.

• It means consistent EU-wide protection against misleading practices. So, if a trader sells a product that claims to get rid of stains or treat woodworm, he’ll need to have evidence to back up those claims - wherever he is in the EU.

• For businesses, it means that they only have to comply with one set of rules. And that innovative marketing techniques can only be challenged if they harm consumers - not just because they are new and unfamiliar.

• So the idea is to give a high level of protection to consumers, whether they’re buying from their local store or a website in another EU country; And, for businesses, they get certainty and lower costs when they sell cross-border.

• But obviously media companies are concerned that they might lose advertising revenues.

• Let me be clear: I do not agree that this will happen. I would be rather disturbed if media revenues have to rely on unfair commercial practices. It would be an implied admission that advertising does not operate fairly and tries to bully consumers.

• Consumers are not fools. I am not trying to protect them from advertising and marketing. But those practices have to be factual and correct.

• Media would be the first one to publicly address and expose rouge traders who cheat the consumer. Therefore I would be astonished if they could not support a law which would actually ban such practices.


Tobacco advertising:

• Smoking kills more people in the EU than anything else. More than any other disease, more than car accidents, more than any food-related diseases.

• I am therefore very committed to measures aimed at discouraging young people and children from taking up smoking.

• And whilst I would not think a long addicted smoker will stop smoking because advertising for tobacco products is banned, I do believe that banning its advertising has an impact on children and young people.

• Nothing can justify the presentation of smoking as cool, bringing freedom or any other positive feature. It kills you. That is the reality.

• I therefore strongly believe that a ban on advertising tobacco products is the right thing to do - and so does the European Parliament and 14 Member States (Germany being the exception).


Health and nutritional claims:

• This draft law which I proposed just before the summer covers claims made by food producers about what their products do for the health of a consumer. And obviously these claims are not only written on the product but they are used in advertising and marketing.

• This has provoked a storm of fictional journalism. Indeed over the summer a large number of press articles have painted an alarming and wildly false picture of what the proposal aims to do and what it will mean in practice. In fairness I have to say that many articles containing wrong or at least inaccurate information originate in Germany whilst other countries were more balanced in their reporting.

• Let me therefore set the record straight.

• The proposal covers nutrition claims (such as rich in vitamin C” or “low in fat”) by defining what they mean and setting thresholds to enable the use of such claims. In short, nutritional claims must be justifiable.

• The proposal also covers health claims - which, as the name suggests, state or imply a health benefit to the consumer. Within three years of the Regulation coming into force we will draw up a list of well established claims that will be permitted. More novel claims will require scientific justification and pre-marketing approval before they can be used.

• The fundamental point is that consumers should be able to make choices based on clear and accurate information. I very much hope that we can all agree on that.

• I should at this stage point out that the use of claims on the labelling or in the advertising of foods is voluntary . No product would be “demonised” under the proposal. No product would be subject to negative labelling. No food product would be banned!

• The proposal aims to harmonise the diverse rules that currently exist for such claims across the Member States.

• It is good news for consumers. It will improve the free movement of goods within the Internal Market. It will increase the legal security of operators. And it will help promote fair competition by eliminating false or misleading claims.

• Contrary to some reports, the proposal enjoys the broad support of a wide range of stakeholders. It follows a very thorough consultation.

• And the European Parliament, far from being “outraged” by the proposal as said in some press reports, has repeatedly pressed the Commission to come forward with such an initiative.

• The alleged creation of a new authority to approve claims is also wrong. The European Food Safety Authority will fulfil this task - and this Authority is up and running.

• Allow me to turn to a range of advertising claims which some allege are under threat from the proposal. They are mainly taken from a newspaper article in the German tabloid BILD - but we could find them across other media too.

  • “Cats would buy Whiskas.” This proposal does not affect cats - or any other animals for that matter. The proposal only concerns food products for human consumption.
  • “Gillette - the best a man can get”. The proposal does not cover cosmetic products. Neither is this a health claim - so no problems.
  • “The power of two hearts” - for a medicine. The proposal does not cover medicines - so, again, no problems there.

And for food products, the proposal affects only nutrition and health claims - not claims about quality.

  • “Quality is the best recipe”, “The tenderest invention since chocolate was invented”, “As valuable as a small steak” “Haribo makes children happy”. None of these are health or nutrition claims - they are therefore outside the scope of the proposed Regulation.

• So - you may ask - what kind of health and nutrition claims and advertising would be prohibited? The answer is labelling, marketing and advertising that lacks clarity, accuracy and that cannot be substantiated.

• This covers vague claims such as “purifies you from the inside/has a positive effect on your metabolism/excellent for your organism” or “preserves youth” relating to general well-being. And claims relating to psychological and behavioural functions such as “improves your memory” or “reduces stress and adds optimism” will similarly be prohibited. Other restrictions will apply - for example to slimming or weight control claims, references to health professionals and to claims on alcoholic drinks.

• But as well as restricting certain claims, the proposal opens the door to a new category of claims. Currently, reduction of disease risk claims are banned under EU legislation. In future, such claims will be permitted if they can be scientifically substantiated and if they receive EU authorisation.

• So - the proposal is not a crackdown on heath and nutrition claims - it is rather a regulating measure which cuts both ways. The result will be an adaptation of claims in labelling and advertising rather than an overall reduction of claims.


Concluding remarks:

• Media operating in Brussels have to relay complex and long decision-making processes to its public. It operates very often as an ally for consumers and is at liberty to attack industry or politicians if it feels consumer interests are not being taken into account.

• However, as soon as a legislative proposal in the interest of consumer needs affects media as business, reporting gets often biased ? Media operates as lobbyist for its own concerns, to some extent this is understandable.

• In such a situation it gets then very difficult to convey neutral and objective information about a policy proposal to consumers and stakeholders alike. I am sure that many German consumers believe we would ban food advertising, that thousands of new bureaucrats would be employed to vet advertising. None of this is true. I remember I first denied that a popular slogan like "Haribo makes children happy" would be banned half a year ago. Yet, it is repeated in many articles again and again as an distinct possibility.

• I accept that media acts as a lobbyist. But I also believe that this can create difficulties for the democratic decision-making process.

Finally let me address a very serious topic that attracts a deal of media attention. That of obesity - particularly in children. There have been many media reports about the problem and how it will escalate if left unchecked. Almost everyone would agree that something has to be done to first halt and then hopefully reverse this worrying trend.

Now you and I know that there is no simple solution. Lifestyles have become more sedentary but food intake has not been correspondingly reduced. We are therefore working on a range of initiatives to address the situation. One of these is a future proposal to standardise nutritional labelling. But this is already deemed by some parts of the media to be either excessive or unworkable. The essence of our proposal would be to enable consumers to receive simple factual, understandable information to enable them to take better control about what they eat and what they feed to their children.

Radical? Excessive? Imposing? I don’t think so. You may have heard the phrase “you can’t have your cake and eat it”. If we are to make a serious dent in the rising level of obesity we need to engage all stakeholders. The media will need to play an active role if we are to succeed. It will be essential in encouraging the behavioural change that is needed if this problem is to be successfully addressed. And this means taking responsibility, engaging fully in a balanced debate and not just resorting to throwing stones from the sidelines.

Thank you for your attention. I would welcome any comments you may have on the issues I have raised or indeed on the relationship between the Commission and the media in general.


2476 words (20 min)


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