n Regulatory strangleholds must not be allowed to stifle innovation crucial to the future of food says Unilever chairman Niall FitzGerald The principle underlying food safety regimes in Europe is deceptively simple. Consumers are entitled to the greatest possible reassurance that what they buy and eat will be safe. In the vast majority of cases the food and catering industries deliver. But when we descend from principles to practice we find a situation of costly inputs and ineffective outputs. Recent food controversies have damaged public confidence in the regulatory process, the food industry, and the authority of science. Regulations are scattered and hard to understand. Procedures are lengthy and unpredictable. So I look forward to the establishment of a European Food Safety Authority with great hope but with some apprehension. The hope comes from the clear need for an independent science-driven body. The apprehension stems from a concern that the legislative framework within which the authority will have to work must be clear, transparent, and swift. If the new authority learns from the approach of our own Food Standards Agency then I shall be encouraged. The FSA's broadly based board, its commitment to openness, and its willingness to work with all food stakeholders have helped it to operate effectively. The real test will come if there is another food safety crisis in Europe. In such an event, the European Food Safety Authority must play a key role. If we create a Europe-wide system then we must handle crises on a Europe-wide basis. The temptation for member states to undermine that system by erecting their own additional controls and regulations must be resisted.We are hardly likely to get immediate agreement on these lines. Member states already have enforcement bodies like the FSA here in the UK. The reaction of other countries to BSE in the UK demonstrated how politically difficult it can be to abide by the rules of the European club in the face of domestic pressures. The danger is that national regimes will create their own agendas, leading to loss of focus and further regulatory confusion. But the hardest tests for the new European authority will not just come from issues over the safety of existing foods, but in its attitude to new and innovative products. It is vital we get the balance right between risk and safety when dealing with innovation in food. The prospect of the inflexible use of the so-called precautionary principle' is particularly worrying. If properly used, the precautionary principle makes sense. But, as some have argued, it could be used to require authorities to work on the basis that if there is any uneliminated risk from a product, however unlikely, no green light can be given. This might be attractive to politicians and regulators. It is dangerous, though, because it immediately creates a playing field which is fundamentally not level. New foods must satisfy criteria that simply do not apply to the existing market. I'm told, for example, that if the humble potato were being introduced in Europe now it would never get through the regulatory regime. Given a choice between the precautionary principle and a plate of fish and chips, which would you rather have? It seems a pity that we now have to regulate common sense. Mention the word innovation in food and everyone thinks genetic modification. We have become so hung up on GM that other innovations, such as functional foods, are being caught in the same net. Regulators must appreciate that we are interested in these innovations because there is consumer demand for them. The fact is consumers increasingly care about how the food they eat supports their lifestyle and health choices. We accept and support the need for a rigorous approach, but it must be coupled with a more predictable and transparent approach to product approvals, one which all member states will support. We are just at the beginning of the road as a far as functional foods are concerned. The pace of scientific research in this area is relentless. Take the science of genomics ­ the collective name for the technologies involving DNA sequencing, the functional analysis of genes, and the processing of the resulting knowledge via bioinformatics. The practical result of this knowledge will be the ability to provide life-enhancing functional foods which will help to counteract the harmful effects caused by external factors such as poor lifestyles, lack of exercise and so on. It is the new frontier of technology. We must be involved. If such innovation is not to be choked off, or moved elsewhere, we need streamlined approval procedures with strict deadlines. Do Europe's politicians have the courage to seize the opportunity to rebuild public confidence and create the conditions to meet consumer demands for food which delivers health and vitality? If they do, they may be surprised by the reaction from consumers. Most regulatory regimes in food are predicated on two questionable assumptions. First, the ideal is a system which permits no risk whatsoever. The second assumption is that consumers are passive recipients of official advice. Therefore, trust can be established by providing more and more information and reassurance, enabling people to make absolutely rational choices about food consumption. The fact is, a no-risk system is unachievable, but in an effort to deliver it we are in danger of erecting barriers to innovation. And, as a result, consumers have developed a strong degree of scepticism about advice from any quarter: from scientists, governments, companies, and indeed from NGOs. Why? Because the authorities feel that we have to try to offer definitive risk-free guidance. Yet, consumers make their own estimation of the risk involved in following guidance ­ arriving at a decision which may be rational, emotional or a mixture of the two. Food safety authorities must engage in dialogue with their citizens and deal with them on an adult-to-adult basis, providing clear and frank estimates of risk, and remembering that people value choice in food as everywhere else. Inflexible use of the precautionary principle is not good governance. Agricultural practices and food processing have never been static. To cease to innovate is to accept stagnation and failure. One recent positive development is the growth of organic farming. As an alternative to environmentally damaging agricultural practices, organic food has many attractions. My own view is the success of organics must be governed by the twin priorities of expanding the amount of land under organic production in the UK and the consumer market share. Proponents of organic methods cannot defend a position in which access to organic food is limited, not least by price. Furthermore, if organic food is seen as a disguised method of protecting inefficient producers, it will be little better than the present system of subsidies for intensive production. We also need greater realism from the organic movement on world food issues. The movement's standard response to the question Can organics feed the world?' is apparently to argue that there is already sufficient food to feed the world but it is inequitably distributed. But we are not likely to have the redistribution of food on such a colossal scale. The organic movement represents a positive step for agriculture and the environment, and I welcome it. But if organic methods are not in themselves able to cope with increasing population and hunger, wherever it exists in the world, then we must look elsewhere. That is one of the reasons why in Unilever we have undertaken pioneering work in the area of sustainable agriculture. This seems to me to offer a third option ­ dare I call it a third way ­ between unsustainably intensive agriculture and organic methodology. We are eager to share what we have learnt. Our long-term aim is to help promote a common benchmark set of indicators for sustainable agriculture that can help those farmers who want to move away from over-intensive methods. That would also have appeal to consumers who are increasingly interested in what lies behind the food that they see on their plates. This consumer interest does, I believe, offer a real opportunity to the UK's farmers. In a post-CAP reform world, there will still be opportunities for farmers to produce added value produce ­ whether it is marketed as sustainable, organic, local, or traditional. We have to be realistic. For very nearly half of UK consumers, according to research by the FSA, price remains the most important factor when buying food. In fact, price was a staggering four times more important than anything else. Taste and quality were very poor seconds. There are those who argue that the regime of cheap, plentiful food must come to an end to restrict demand and put the brake on unsustainable agricultural production. That may be so, but we must tread very carefully. Cheap food has meant children in Europe have immeasurably improved their nutritional standards compared to the pre-war period. There are people in the UK who still live in relative poverty, and price increases would still hit them hard. And price increases could only be justified on the basis of promoting sustainable agriculture. There is no argument in favour of protecting producers who are simply uncompetitive. We must be wary that this is not just a new way to achieve the same discredited approach. I have spoken so far about two developments that give me hope: the growth of the organic food market, and the development of sustainable agriculture. The third is likely to be more controversial: I believe it is time for a fresh start on genetically modified organisms. There have been many understandable questions about the effects of GM crops on the environment and on people's health. I welcome these because they are the foundation of a good debate. There have also been numerous instances of alarmist and hysterical reporting, law-breaking, and pseudo-science. We face the barrier of deep public suspicion in Europe. Can it be overcome? I believe that it can if we remember the importance of working with consumers and speaking their language. The mistake that has been made with GM crops is the failure to reach the consumer. So far we have badly misjudged the public mood. We need to begin afresh. That does not mean following public opinion. It means setting a lead, communicating directly and honestly with consumers, and answering all the questions that people have. If there are areas of doubt, then let us say so. At the same time, European leaders should place dialogue with the public and an increase in public understanding of the GM issue at the top of their in-trays. I know this is not a task that politicians will relish. But if science, consumer requirements, and the need to have a competitive European food sector are all pointing in the same direction, then our leaders should take heed. It would be fatal to leave the field open to those who would whip up hysteria without a rational response from those entrusted with the welfare of our society. It requires courageous leadership, not comfortable populism. l This feature is based on a speech this week by Niall FitzGerald at the second City Food Lecture sponsored by Sainsbury. {{FEATURES }}