By Martin Banks - 19th October 2012
Europe's food and drink industry is an economic force in Europe
Paola Testori Coggi
Europe's food and drink industry risks becoming a "food museum" unless it becomes more competitive.
That was the stark warning from a keynote speaker at the 'Food Drink Europe' congress in Brussels on Wednesday.
The conference, attended by scores of high profile figures in the food and drink industry, heard that Europe "needs to focus on innovation and boosting its competitive advantage".
Experts also said it must ensure that science "remains at the heart" of business and regulation.
Participants focused on the current challenges and global trends affecting Europe's food and drink sector and the needs of the industry.
Maurice House, minister counsellor on food and agriculture for the US mission to the EU, issued a blunt warning, saying, "In an era of globalisation, Europe is in danger of becoming a food museum.
"Europe's food industry clearly needs standards based on science and not on culture alone because the latter are not standards, simply preferences. This is particularly true in a world where Europe will no longer be the sole global standard setter."
Further comment came from WTO deputy director general Rufus Yerxa, who said, "The fundamentals are there for Europe to maintain a strong market share and remain competitive worldwide.
"However, to do that, it must adjust its trade relations so they are not focused on protecting its least efficient sectors. Moreover, Europe needs to find more areas of consensus with its partners rather than pursuing trade disputes.
The congress, which marks the organisation's 30th anniversary, was attended by more than 400 representatives from across the regulatory and political spectrum - both at the European and international levels - including civil society, academia and media.
Over two days, the focus was on how best to feed Europe's recovery by providing safe, sustainably produced, nutritious, high quality affordable food products, to more than 500 million consumers across Europe.
The food and drink industry is Europe's largest industry, generating €956.2bn in turnover.
As a major pillar of the EU economy, it was said that the food and drink industry plays a vital part in 'feeding the recovery' and achieving smart, sustainable and inclusive growth in line with the EU's 2020 strategy.
In 2011 alone, Europe's food and drink industry registered a positive trade balance of over €13bn, up by more than a third against 2010, the congress was told.
In addition, the industry boasted a 16 per cent increase in exports in 2011, with exports to China rising by 466 per cent, to Turkey by 261 per cent, to Singapore by 184 per cent and to Russia by 110 per cent over the last decade (2001-2010).
FoodDrinkEurope president Jesús Serafín Pérez said, "As the largest manufacturing industry in the EU, the food and drink industry is inevitably facing challenging times.
"In today's economic circumstances, the challenges are huge and we must make an extra effort to remain competitive.
"Europe is renowned globally for its food and drink products. But in order to remain competitive we must make the right choices, invest in the right areas and understand consumer trends. Industry, regulators and civil society must work together to create the right conditions for our sector to flourish."
Further comment came from the director general of DG enterprise and special envoy for SMEs, Daniel Calleja Crespo, who praised the sector as being "extremely important in promoting growth and jobs and ensuring the competitiveness of the industry and that delivers products which are safe and of the highest quality for our citizens".
Paola Testori Coggi, director general of DG Sanco, said, ''Europe's food and drink industry is an economic force in Europe, still achieving positive growth despite the economic conditions.
"DG Sanco has worked hard to put in place a regulatory regime for Europe that is reliable, predictable and stable, in order to create a level playing field for Europe's industry, creating clarity and rewards for genuine innovation."
Meanwhile, Harald Wiedenhofer, secretary general of the European federation of food, agriculture and tourism trade unions (EFFAT), says workers in the industry are "paying the price" to rescue banks and "calm greedy financial markets".
He was speaking at EFFAT's tourism sector conference in Dublin.