The Commissioner for health and consumer affairs tells EurActiv that the horsemeat scandal should be seen for what it is: a fraud rather than a flaw in the regulation. He favours introducing tougher penalties for such incidents, but believes food labelling should be kept as a separate issue.
Tonio Borg, a former foreign minister of Malta, became commissioner for health and consumer affairs earlier this year.
He spoke to EurActiv’s Jeremy Fleming.
You joined three months ago replacing Commissioner John Dalli, who resigned in difficult circumstances. How easy has it been for you to take over as Commissioner in circumstances where the media has been taking such a strong interest in some of the issues surrounding the departure of your predecessor?
Of course that is a closed chapter, in the sense that I was appointed by the Council following a hearing, and I have a job to do.
My main aim was to launch the adoption of the tobacco directive, which had been in the news for some time. I promised in the hearing to deliver it by the end of January, but we managed to get it published by 19 December with the help of Commission President Barroso.
So I made clear in my hearing that in spite of the circumstances in which I was elected, that the tobacco directive was alive and kicking, that it was not dead, and the aim of the Commission in publishing on 19 December was to get the agreement of the co-legislators within the current mandate, because the tobacco directive will require a transitional period which will take us three-and a half years. I think that it is long overdue.
We have taken action and now it is up to the Council and the Parliament to approve the directive for the benefit of consumers and citizens. Every year, about 700,000 die in the European Union of smoke-related diseases and I think that it is a scandal. We aim to reduce smokers by 2% within five years.
How strong is the resistance you are anticipating from the Parliament?
There has to be some kind of resistance. I half jokingly told the environmental committee that it is criticised by those who say we have gone too far, and by those who want to us to go further. This means we are in the middle of the road, which means it is a reasonable, balanced proposal. We are not prohibiting smoking, and we are leaving choice to consumers.
There will be some objections especially from those countries where tobacco production is important. The economic argument will be made there, but jobs will also be created by the savings resulting from the new rules.
Will you try to alleviate the gaps left in economies such as Romania and Bulgaria, where there are large tobacco growing regions?
It is not directly my responsibility. But there are certain questions which need to be clarified to allay certain fears. For example characterising flavours in tobacco products will be prohibited, but not all flavours or additives will be prohibited. So the fear that certain tobacco would be prohibited because you cannot add to them is not correct.
On the economic argument, we have to be careful, however, because we cannot say we must not reduce the number of smokers because of the economic argument. If you look at the other side: the cost to health systems and the loss to the economy are resulting from tobacco use are huge.
Do you have any place where you might be able to compromise?
There are areas where we could clarify. Additives and characterising flavours, for example. The definitions of these will be determined by experts appointed within the individual member states and supervised by the Commission. There we can find compromises so long as there is a basic understanding that tobacco should look and taste like tobacco.
On clinical trials, the Parliament approves of the Commission’s proposals to beef up the regulations, but it also wants to go further than the Commission, by implementing an EU-wide register, what do you think of this?
We need to make clinical trials less burdensome, because at the moment it is a burdensome regime. This is a regulation, a law applicable in all member states, if we can make a more ethical dimension to the trials then why not. On other matters one could compromise, but we need a modern but not too burdensome system.
Has the media overreacted on the horsemeat scandal?
No, the media is doing its job. It is right for the media to discover when someone has defrauded consumers for economic gain. It is not a health issue but one of food labelling. It is a serious breach; but it is a labelling infringement and not a food safety issue.
It is not about lacking legislation or tools. Indeed the Irish notification body that discovered the problems shows that. We are coordinating the testing and the criminal investigation. All member states are being tested, they are currently being started in March, and the Commission will co-finance 75% of these tests with a possibility of keeping them going for two more months, though we have committed ourselves to publish them in mid April.
If there was a fraud should the supermarkets be held responsible?
The responsibility remains that of the false labeler further down the food chain. Somewhere down the line someone changed the horsemeat to beef labelling for pure economic gain. The detection system did work however.
This has brought the labelling issue back on the agenda, already under review.
Yes but that is completely separate from this issue. There is a movement within member states asking whether one should amend labelling legislation so that within each and every meat product, whether processed or not, there should be be a label not only on what kind of meat you are eating but also the place of origin. Today that only applies to fresh beef. The question of whether all other animal products should be labelled, but this horsemeat scandal would have happened just the same because it was a false labelling issue, a fraud.
But some say such a labelling would create another hurdle through which fraudsters would have to jump.
Not necessarily because one could be honest about the origin but fraudulent about the labelling on the ingredients. The Commission was already committed to have an impact assessment on the costs and what would be the origin (place of birth or slaughter) by the end of the year we are trying to get this report as a soon as possible.
There are a growing number of member states in favour of improving this leg. But this incident was not about the legislation – which was already there – it was simply ignored.
MEPs are likely to connect the issues, are they not?
There are two arguments here. The place of origin argument is one separate issue and some in favour of stronger labelling are grasping this as an opportunity to push for that. But the other question is ‘are the punishments good enough?’. The penalty has to be dissuasive and appropriate, but when someone is caught in this kind of scandal they have to be dissuaded. When someone violates EU the ripple effect have much wider impact so the criminal penalty has to be persuasive.