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Consumer protection and food safety have a long tradition in Germany

21/2001, 11.07.2001

Unlike the subjects themselves, communication about risks has changed considerably over the last 125 years

Anyone who follows reporting in the media could get the impression that consumer protection was an invention of the 21st century. However, the Old Testament already mentions "food and slaughter commandments". With the establishment of the Imperial Health Office in 1876 questions of the hygiene of foods and commodities finally took centre stage in state work. For instance it was a matter of ensuring slaughter animal hygiene and elaborating scientific foundations for the "Reich Act on Foods, Coffee, Tea, Tobacco and Commodities".

Some subjects of interest at that time are still topical today like the question of "the transport of live animals by rail" within the framework of zoonosis control. Even if there was still no talk of novel foods, central subjects of consumer protection have changed little over the years. This does not apply to the treatment of consumers. It was not until the concept of risk communication became an essential part of risk analysis that they entered the ring as an active partner. "Besides independence and scientific competence", commented Dieter Arnold, Director of the Federal Institute of Health Protection of Consumers and Veterinary Medicine, "complete transparency and dialogue with all those concerned are today the preconditions for consumer protection which meets effective, international requirements".

The question of the viable distribution of competencies is a leitmotif over the centuries, from the Holy Roman Empire down to the competence question between the Federal Government and Länder. Bismarck elevated consumer protection to a matter for the Reich. Various institutions in the Reich and in the Länder were commissioned with monitoring and compliance. In 1907 in Prussia alone there were no less than 147 institutions, municipal and private laboratories. But "criminal wheeling and dealing" can be traced back over thousands of years, too. Black sheep have endeavoured again and again to mislead consumers by means of adulteration and contamination of products. Consumer protectionists have endeavoured again and again to put a stop to their activities. The further the consumer moved away from producers in the course of industrialisation and urbanisation, the more consumer protection became important.

A reasonable role sort is, therefore, essential in consumer health protection because attempts have been made again and again to use consumer protection for political interests. The institutions responsible for risk assessment must enjoy political and economic autonomy. By contrast, ensuring risk-reducing measures is primarily a matter for politicians. The measures which they then take on the basis of scientifically substantiated, independent assessments and recommendations depend on a whole series of (economic, social and political) factors. What is important is that the consumer is involved by means of the highest possible degree of transparency both in the scientific assessment and in the political decision process. This is the only way of ensuring confidence and acceptance in the long term.

As one of the three successor institutions to the Federal Health Office, the Federal Institute for Health Protection of Consumer and Veterinary Medicine is continuing in the tradition of the Imperial Health Office. Even today, 125 years after the establishment of the latter, questions of food safety and consumer protection make up the core of the work of BgVV. Reason enough for a look towards the past and the future. On 14 July 2001 BgVV is extending an invitation to an Open Day and an opportunity to experience consumer protection at first hand. By means of a hands-on science trail through laboratories and sheds, a question and answer panel on various subjects of consumer health protection with representatives of the Länder , monitoring, consumer organisations, we would like to render our work transparent.

Let yourselves be carried away into the world of science. The Open Day begins at 14h00 on our beautiful Institute grounds in Berlin Marienfelde, Diedersdorfer Weg 1. It is part of a summer festival. There is an exciting programme for the little ones with sports, games and entertainment, and for adults there are culinary delights, Swing, Bossa Nova and other Brazilian rhythms. And you can even learn something in our short quiz!


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