As a follow-up to the study "Competitiveness of the European Food Industry: an economic and legal assesment," the first meeting of the High Level Group took place on 12 June 2008, with the task of identifying and addressing the issues that determine the competitiveness of the agro-food industry. The Group was also charged with formulating a set of recommendations to achieve predictable and stable framework conditions to boost the performance of this important sector.

Under the terms of reference, the group was expected to deliver a report identifying those key factors that influence not only the competitive position but also the sustainability of the sector. This included addressing future challenges and trends for both the industry and society at large. In this respect, the following areas were addressed throughout the process:

- Agricultural and Environmental Policy
- The Internal Market for Food
- The Operation of the Food Chain
- Research and Innovation
- Trade and Exports

Given the wide impact of the agro-food industry, a broad range of stakeholders was required. Commissioner Verheugen (DG Enterprise) was joined by Mariann Fischer Boel (DG Agriculture), Meglena Kuneva (Commissioner for Consumer Protection, DG SANCO) and Androulla Vassiliou (Commissioner for Health, DG SANCO).

In addition to the Commission, there were eight member state representatives, and 19 non-governmental participants. Of the 19 non-governmental representatives, 16 were from the industry. The remaining three represented trade unions (EFFAT- European Federation of Food, Agriculture and Tourism Trade Unions), consumers (BEUC) and the public health community (EPHA).

EPHA felt that participation in such an exercise was crucial in order to realign the Group’s corporate bias as much as possible. Our place in the High Level Group was secured with open support from DG SANCO, as the presence of civil society health representative was necessary in order to fairly address the sector’s social impact.

Throughout the process, EPHA provided the Commission with constructive feedback on topics such as food labelling, innovative foods, the production of healthier food products and GMOs. EPHA’s amendments and contributions were accepted to a varying degree, and sometimes rejected outright. There is no doubt, however, that the report is a better document in terms of public health outcomes as a result of EPHA’s participation.

That said, EPHA must stress that the imbalance in terms of participants meant that the Group was overrepresentative of industry, and issues of public interest were dismissed in favour of industry benefit. There was a great need for environmental groups to have been included as participants, for example. Issues such as food safety, GMOs, and food labelling, which have a huge impact on public health and the environment, were addressed from the industry perspective. As a result, there is a disproportionate weight given to the reduction of administrative burden, and consumer education is seen as a priority in order to breakdown opposition and concerns about new technologies including GMOs.

Friends of the Earth Europe produced a report in early 2009, "Whose views count?," highlighting the lack of representation in the Group, and rightly recognised the fact that public health and consumer interests were outnumbered. EPHA welcomes this report, and urges the Commission to ensure that future High Level Groups and stakeholder consultation exercises are as representative as possible.

EPHA worked hard to ensure that public health interests were not sidelined in the report. EPHA reminded the Commission and other participants of the primacy of public health, and argued that human health should not be put at risk for economic gains. It was also stressed that in terms of sustainability, a healthy Europe would better ensure competitiveness on the global field than a society struck by the burden of lifestyle-related disease.


For more information

DG Enterprise

DG SANCO

Friends of the Earth Europe

Related articles

- EPHA Amendments to the Concerns of the HLG on Competitiveness of Agro-Food Industry
- article 3319
- EPHA Amendments to Concerns of the Agro-Food Industry
- article 3241
-  High Level Group on the Competitiveness of the Agro-Food Industry, June 2008

Last modified on April 1 2009.