NAT/448 
Agricultural Product Quality Policy

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Tel. +32 25469011 — Fax +32 25134893 — Internet: http://www.eesc.europa.eu

Brussels, 20 January 2010

EN

OPINION 
of the 
European Economic and Social Committee  
on the 
Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on agricultural product quality policy

COM(2009) 234 final

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Rapporteur: Mr Kapuvári

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On 28 May 2009 the European Commission decided to consult the European Economic and Social Committee, under Article 262 of the Treaty establishing the European Community, on the

Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions on agricultural product quality policy

COM(2009) 234 final.

The Section for Agriculture, Rural Development and the Environment, which was responsible for preparing the Committee's work on the subject, adopted its opinion on 9 December 2009.

At its 459th plenary session, held on 20 and 21 January 2010 (meeting of 20 January), the European Economic and Social Committee adopted the following opinion by 145 votes in favour, with 5 abstentions.

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1.      Conclusions and recommendations

1.1      The large and growing number of certification schemes is not helping the European Union's quality policy to achieve its objectives. In view of this, the aim should be not only to harmonise and simplify existing schemes, but also to reduce their number. The EESC would suggest identifying a scheme which would have preference at Community level. The Commission should determine the scheme which is the most appropriate for this purpose.

1.2      The European Union's quality policy is a key component covering other components forming an extremely complex system. Given that quality policy ties in with all other components, instruments and objectives of the Common Agricultural Policy, these aspects must also be taken into account. However, the three main issues to be addressed of quality policy development (information, coherence and simplification) only reflect this approach in a narrow sense. The EESC recommends that the Commission endeavours to make use of the potential offered by quality policy in line with its ideas on long-term strategy and policy for the EU's agri-food sector. Indeed, quality policy is a tool which could be used even more effectively to create new sources of income and new way for farmers to become more competitive. At the same time, this is an area where there is considerable scope for developing internal cooperation within the agri-food chain. There is great need for such cooperation, given that, in view of the unequal distribution of revenue in the food production chain, strategic partners are increasingly coming to view one another as adversaries. This particularly applies to countries and sectors where processing is not in the hands of producers.

1.3      On 18 September 2008, the EESC adopted the Opinion on the Proposal for Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers1. In this opinion among others – the EESC stressed that it would like to see mandatory indication of the origin of food, of the primary processing products and, on the basis of a case-by-assessment of the secondary processing products, the origin of the main ingredients used to make them.

1.4      The more EU consumers consciously opt for EU products in the long term, the more predictable the future of the European agricultural and agri-food sectors will become. In view of the market opening process linked to WTO negotiations, this aspect is one of the most important factors for the EU agricultural sector, or even the most important one. The policy on the quality of products from the agricultural and agri-food sectors should be adapted with all this in mind.

1.5      In this context, it is very important to clarify what good, "European quality" means for consumers. To this end, it would be useful to carry out a survey based on a professionally prepared questionnaire, which could be used to establish the basic general principles.

1.6      The EESC believes that "European quality" is to a major extent a result of the European agricultural model. The European agricultural model reflects a policy which touches on fundamental questions that are important to society as a whole. The EESC supports the policy that this European agricultural model should be preserved and maintained2. The EESC calls for adequate CAP reform in order to have a level playing field for our agriculture.

2.      General comments

2.1      The EU's policy on the quality of agricultural products must not only contribute to achieving the objectives of the CAP, but also play a key role in keeping the sustainable development of European agriculture and the agri-food industry on track, by putting in place the conditions for foodstuffs of "European quality". For this to happen, it is not enough simply to raise awareness of such "European quality" in the internal market but to promote it on external markets as well, if the European agriculture and food-processing sectors are to be preserved and developed.

2.2      Besides, this involves a lot more than providing consumers with accurate information on the characteristics of products linked to production processes. The more EU consumers consciously opt for EU products in the long term, the more predictable the future of the European agricultural and agri-food sectors will become. In view of the market opening process linked to WTO negotiations, this aspect is one of the most important factors for the EU agricultural sector, or even the most important. The policy on the quality of products from the agricultural and agri-food sector should be adapted with all this in mind. The protection of values resulting from the European agricultural model should be strengthened outside the EU.

2.3      In this context, it is very important to clarify what good, "European quality" means for consumers. To this end, it would be useful to carry out a survey based on a professionally prepared questionnaire, which can be used to establish the general principles.

2.4      In this context, as we have already pointed out, it is very important to clarify what good, "European quality" means for consumers. Characteristics which cannot be expressed in figures can also be put on an equal footing with other foodstuff properties and form part of quality policy. The EESC considers the "European quality" in a broader sense. It means environmental friendly production, meeting the rules of animal welfare, sustainable production methods and maintaining the rural areas as well.

2.5      Preference for internally produced high-quality foodstuffs is a fundamental principle of the EU, but in recent times this principle has been a bit overlooked. In the case of products from the agricultural and agri-food sector, positive motivation in favour of internal products is particularly important, as these are strategic products which inspire consumers' trust and are at the heart of their well-being, provided that we maintain and improve production conditions. Given the unequal sharing of revenue from the food production chain, together with declining profitability and the resulting threat to food quality and nutritional value, this issue is especially topical. The subject is also on the agenda of numerous EU bodies and is closely linked to quality policy - to be more precise, a complex approach to such policy3.

3.      Specific comments

3.1      Current agricultural product quality measures

3.1.1      As the Communication explains, one of the essential objectives of the policy on agricultural product quality is to inform consumers of product characteristics. In our opinion, European consumers feel that foodstuffs produced in EU Member States meet basic requirements, but are not really aware of the other valuable characteristics of these foodstuffs. As the Communication points out, this situation has developed because quality policy was developed gradually, sector by sector, over time and to a varying extent. Some measures have not been communicated effectively – or rather, transparently – enough to the public.

3.1.2      The EESC approves and supports efforts to create a single system from various instruments and to develop a comprehensive policy on the subject. Not only is greater effectiveness needed, but EU consumers also need to accept the prices that go with products manufactured in this way, to accept that they are fair and to prefer these products.

3.2      Policy development

3.2.1      The EESC was pleased to note that the Commission's quality policy consultations were very wide-ranging and enabled all stakeholders to participate in the setting of strategic guidelines on further development.

3.2.2      The Committee agrees with the three main strategic priorities of information, coherence and simplification. The policy must be developed in such a way as to contribute to simplification and transparency; at the same time, it is at least as important to ensure that all stakeholders in the food production chain and, above all, consumers, have the requisite information.

3.2.3      In framing policy on this subject, it is important to endeavour to reduce the costs associated with quality policy and to maintain the resulting costs for producers and processors at a reasonable level.

3.2.4      On 18 September 2008, the EESC adopted the Opinion on the Proposal for Regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council on the provision of food information to consumers4. In this opinion – among others – the EESC stressed that it would like to see mandatory indication of the origin of food, of the primary processing products and, on the basis of a case-by-assessment of the secondary processing products, the origin of the main ingredients used to make them.

On the other hand, the EESC considers that origin labelling should not cause extra costs in the food chain, has to provide a competitive advantage to the producers and has to fulfil the requirements of enforceability. It can be discussed whether the present compulsory origin labelling, like on fresh beef meat, has an additional value to the consumers.

3.3      EU agricultural quality measures

3.3.1      EU farming requirements

3.3.1.1      From the perspective of agricultural product quality policy, the system of requirements applicable to production is an important tool. One characteristic of the system is the complexity of the requirements. In view of this and the lack of general awareness of such requirements, consumers cannot be expected to have detailed knowledge of them. Besides, foodstuffs manufactured in line with production requirements are mostly raw materials, many of which do not reach consumers directly.

Thirdly, all farmers must comply with EU production requirements. This makes the difference to most of the imported products. Everything which is necessary from an environmental and social perspective is checked (as a necessary condition for direct subsidies, so called cross compliance); however, this means information which is less relevant for consumers. The system of production requirements is important and we need to support compliance with it, in view of ensuring quality food products. However, it is of limited relevance as a means of informing consumers.

3.3.1.2      The EESC agrees that products produced on EU territory under normal circumstances comply with basic requirements; in view of this, there is no need to make special mention of such compliance. The relevant inspection systems have been developed to this end, and work well. It would be good to remind EU consumers that this is the normal situation.

3.3.2      Marketing standards

3.3.2.1      Marketing standards tend to be technical issues which the EESC has little to comment on, insofar as it has not already commented on them in the opinion referred to in detail in the following section. All concerned had an opportunity to express their views on this during the wide-ranging consultation.

However, the Committee would point out that the "EU requirements" label mentioned in the preceding paragraph is not an appropriate means of communicating with consumers, given that it would be displayed on almost every product, and would therefore no longer allow consumers to make an informed choice. On the other hand, place-of-farming labelling, indication of origin provides specific information on a product and can motivate buyers. For processed products, it is information on the place of farming of the main agricultural product which is relevant to consumers, as it represents the added value of the EU production. These products reserved their market positions even under the economic crisis situation both as far as volume and prices.

3.3.2.2      The EESC supports implementation of the regulatory plans set out in this chapter of the Communication. Any information or standard must reflect reality and inspire consumer trust in products.

3.3.3      Geographical indications

3.3.3.1      In 2008 the EESC discussed this issue in its own initiative opinion "Geographical indications and designations"5. The Committee still fully stands by what was said in that document, and believes that it should be considered as an appendix to this opinion.

3.3.3.2      The introduction of a system of geographical indications has proved to be a successful initiative which is in the interests both of consumers and producers/processors. For this reason the Committee is of the opinion that the three systems of registration of geographical indications (for wines, for spirits and for agricultural products and foodstuffs) should be maintained as they stand at present, as well as the two instruments in place (the PDO protected designation of origin and PGI protected geographical indication).

3.3.3.3      The Committee is particularly in favour of authorising companies which have the right to manufacture products with a geographical indication to carry out checks too. In this way, by going beyond declared objectives, we may achieve a higher level of cooperation, thus contributing to both production and marketing efficiency. This could lead to excluding from production some companies not meeting these regulations. The EESC believes that the EU legislation should be modified so that Member States can allow the organisations that they designate or recognise with regard to the management, protection and/or promotion of the GI to adapt the production potential to the requirements of the market on the basis of fair and non-discriminatory principles. Thanks to this a better distribution of the value added can also be achieved on the food supply chain.

3.3.3.4      The protection of our GIs at the international level remains very problematic. It is therefore very important for European agriculture to benefit from the support of the European Commission which is a key player in international trade negotiations.

3.3.4      Traditional specialities

3.3.4.1      The Committee feels that the ideas on developing a system of traditional specialities have not been sufficiently worked out. Such a system should be maintained as it represents a tool to protect the European agri-food patrimony.

3.3.4.2      Anyway, the Committee feels that it is important and necessary to define the category of "traditional specialities" more precisely. In the case of foodstuffs, traditional specialities are characterised by the use of traditional raw materials together with traditional technologies and ingredients in the production process. The difference in quality in comparison to ordinary products has to do with the specific production method (local know-how). In the case of products which are local in character, these factors cannot easily be separated from the local environment; in view of this it would be more accurate to refer to such products as so called "traditional and local specialities".

3.3.4.3      This terminology expresses the transfer (tradition) of production know-how based on the knowledge and practices of local communities (local character) over a longer period (from one generation to the next). The quality of "traditional and local specialities" therefore has both temporal (historic) and spatial (link to a geographical location) dimensions. Moreover, tradition also expresses culture which is linked to the life of local communities; culture is therefore the third dimension of the quality of "traditional and local specialities" The above-mentioned EESC opinion also discusses this issue in detail, and emphasises that quality policy and rural development, the second pillar of the CAP, are closely interlinked.

3.3.5      Organic farming

3.3.5.1      Creating a single logo for organic products at European level would spare organic farmers procedures for participating in various systems, the costs of which impact on the prices of these specific products. It would also help consumers to get to grips with such products more easily.

3.3.5.2      The EESC supports the efforts which have been made to achieve this, as mentioned in the Commission's communication.

4.      Development of EU framework for quality policy

4.1      Coherence of new EU schemes

4.1.1      Production methods which offer greater added value and scope for enhancing the level of "European quality" warrant the development by the EU of an appropriate labelling scheme. We are therefore in favour of all such initiatives.

4.2      Guidelines for private and national food quality certification schemes

4.2.1      The only action taken on such schemes used in the EU should be in the form of guidelines.

4.2.2      Introduction of private food quality certification schemes must in no way cause an increase in production costs and/or public taxation. However, the EESC would prefer certification by public bodies with European rules and parameters, or, in any case, involving public-private cooperation.

Brussels, 20 January 2010.

The President 
of the 
European Economic and Social Committee 
 
 
 
 

Mario Sepi

 

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1  OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 81.


2  OJ C 368, 20.12.99, p. 76-86.


3  We refer to the Communication from the Commission to the European Parliament, the Council, the European Economic and Social Committee and the Committee of the Regions A better functioning food supply chain in Europe, 28.10.2009 COM(2009)591.


4  OJ C 77, 31.3.2009, p. 81.


5  OJ C 204, 9.8.2008, p. 57.


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