Ireland holds the presidency for the first six months of 2004 and as such is the country with the historic task of overseeing the expansion of the EU from 15 to 25, and the CIAA (Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries of the EU) has called on the Dublin authorities to take action to ensure that the transition is a smooth one.
Meeting with representatives of the Irish health, trade, employment and agriculture ministries this week, the CIAA's president Jean Martin highlighted in particular the challenges facing the food industry in an enlarged community.
"Ireland is being given the challenging task of successfully managing both the historical enlargement of the EU and a period of major political transition. In parallel, it is also vital that the EU Presidency intensifies efforts to create the necessary conditions for the EU food and drink industry to reinforce its competitiveness, develop its innovation capabilities and take full advantage of the expected growth," Martin said.
He stressed that the transition to a 25-member bloc must not lead to any weakening of the competitiveness of the EU food and drink industry - indeed, the move should rather improve competitiveness, both on internal and world markets, and that a number of challenges had to be met in order to ensure this.
He said that food companies from the new Member States had to meet the standards of the rest of the EU, and called on the Irish Presidency to make sure it had the right administrative and control structures in place to ensure that those food companies which do not conform at the time of accession will meet their commitments.
With consumers increasingly sensitive to food safety issues - BSE has reared its ugly head once again, this time in the US - maintaining trust in the food chain is vital, and any reduction in that level of trust caused by 'rogue' producers in the accession countries is totally unacceptable.
The CIAA said it would continue to help food and drink producers in the candidate countries to meet the requirements of EU legislation to ensure that there is no weakening of standards after expansion - but stressed that the Presidency had to play its part as well.
Expansion is not the only major activity affecting the food and drink industry which will take place during the Irish presidency, however.
New EU rules on health claims could also be decided during the first six months of the year, and the CIAA reiterated its calls for a "harmonised, transparent and predictable framework for nutrition and health claims and for fortified foods, ensuring a high level of consumer protection and providing food and drink companies with the necessary flexibility to continue to invest in research and to innovate".
"To this end, every product must be allowed to bear a claim provided the claim is based on science and clearly communicated," Martin said. "Measures aimed at excluding certain sectors from the possibility to claim a nutritional or health benefit will hamper innovation efforts and discourage certain sectors to continue improving the nutritional content of their products."
Bertie Ahern's government will certainly have its work cut out to ensure that everything runs smoothly during their six month Presidency - the failure to reach agreement on the new European Constitution means that Dublin could also have to schedule new negotiations on this issue to stave off the possibility of a two-tier Europe emerging - and of course food and drink issues will form only a part of that work.
But they are nonetheless an extremely important part, with implications for a number of areas from external trade (the European food and drink industry is worth €600 billion) to public health. Failure is quite simply not an option, and the CIAA will be keeping a close watch on the developments in Ireland - and presumably in the Netherlands too when the Dutch take over the presidency for the second half of the year - to ensure that, for the food and drink industry at least, 2004 is a success.