From 18 to 20 November, 55 participants from a swathe of countries on Europe’s edges, took part in a three-day European Neighbourhood Programme (ENP) Conference at EFSA’s headquarters in Parma. Almost all of the eligible countries were represented: Algeria, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Egypt, Georgia, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Moldova, Morocco, Palestine, Tunisia and Ukraine.
The Conference was part of a two-year programme that started in February 2014 and is funded by the European Commission’s Directorate General for Development and Cooperation. The ENP aims to strengthen relations between the EU and neighbouring countries, encouraging dialogue and exchanges of knowledge and best practices. EFSA’s aims were to inform the participants about the Authority’s role and responsibilities in the food safety area, support them through sharing experiences in organising and managing work, and improve cooperation with Europe’s surrounding countries.
Head of Food Laboratories at the Jordan Food and Drug Administration, Jordan
Food safety there and here
Several ENP country organisations presented overviews of the food safety situation in their home nations. This increased understanding of how they are organised, the relationships between the various organisations responsible for food safety and the state of their risk analysis capacities. Many of the countries face unique challenges due to environmental, political and economic factors. Some are centralising their food safety structures while others are looking to set up advisory boards similar to EFSA’s Scientific Panels or improve their laboratory facilities.
There were also presentations by EFSA, the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Consumers, Member State agencies, and international organisations where EFSA has strong collaborative partnerships: such as the Food and Agriculture Organization, the World Health Organization, the World Organisation for Animal Health and the European and Mediterranean Plant Protection Organization.
Everyone agreed that coming together to share experiences and ideas at this Conference was an invaluable opportunity for the ENP countries.
From refugees to meeting EU standards
Novel Foods Manager for Food Control Services in the Ministry of Health, Israel
Several of the ENP representatives mentioned specific challenges and opportunities ahead that they aim to address. Dr Ahmad, Head of Food Laboratories at the Jordan Food and Drug Administration, describes the challenges in Jordan as closely linked to the issues of refugees from Syria. “Jordan’s population has increased from 6 to 10 million, a 35% increase in a very short period of time which affects the food sources and the water, as well as food safety. Basically all of the resources are under pressure and the workload has doubled. Opportunities to collaborate could bring greater support to Jordan during this period – training, support for the labs, more contact with EFSA for advice, all of these could benefit our country.”
For Israel, according to Ziva Hamama, the Novel Foods Manager for Food Control Services in the Ministry of Health, a key challenge is dealing with different kinds of contaminants, including heavy metals, pesticides and mycotoxins. But in general it is also a question of limited resources. “We have one person, who usually manages different tasks, and we don’t have laboratories in Israel that can do all the chemical analysis we need, so we have to send samples to Europe, which can be time consuming.”
Dianna Mirzoyan, the Head of the Foreign Relations Department of the State Service for Food Safety at the Ministry of Agriculture in Armenia, reflects, “We are on the same page as Croatia. We are taking the same steps as they did before they joined the EU: trying to implement food safety best practices, and updating our legislation on hygiene and food safety control practices aimed at facilitating the safety of the food products for the domestic consumers as well as strengthening the competitiveness of Armenian producers in the international food market.”
Mr. Ion Sula
General Director of the Moldovan National Food Safety Agency, Moldova
Dr Ouali, from Algeria’s Department of Veterinary Services, sees their challenge in making structural improvements and hopes “that EFSA can help”. She explains, “Today there are seven ministries involved in Food Safety in Algeria and we would like to simplify this and implement a communication network between them to share knowledge.” Mr Ion Sula, General Director of the Moldovan National Food Safety Agency, believes, “The biggest challenge is to improve our national food safety agency and develop EU standards. Right now 85% of legislation is already harmonised with EU legislation. But we aim to do more. We are creating an IT system so consumers can trace the production of food along the chain – from seeds, producer, where it comes from, where it was stored, transportation, etc., every step of the way needs to be accessible for the final consumer.”
In Morocco the challenges are different. Morocco’s Dr Lachhab, Head of Regulation and Standardisation, mentions “sanitary requirements and manufacturing practices, veterinary drugs and food additives,” as the main issues they contend with. “Morocco exports many goods to the EU so we need to guarantee quality and harmonise with EU standards.” Morocco will also “implement a Scientific Committee, with external experts from Morocco but first we need to find the budget and devise the structure of the committee; we will seek support and advice for setting this up.”
Consensus despite the differences
With these varying challenges and structures, what were the views on the value of such a conference? Surprisingly, they are similar and largely positive.
Department of Veterinary Services, Algeria
Dr Ahmad from Jordan was very enthusiastic. “I am so excited to be here right now. The conference is something new, an added value –– all the topics were of interest for me, gave me knowledge that I will transfer to Jordan. We need more conferences like this one!”
Ziva Hamama from Israel found that “conferences like this one are a great opportunity to understand where we can use the support of specific countries or the European Commission – finding not only new resources, but sharing knowledge as well.” In the future she would like to “collaborate, participate in a working group, and have a contact person for specific topics – like a partner – that we can work with or contact when we have questions.”
Armenia’s Dianna Mirzoyan enjoyed the conference and found it “a great platform for cooperation and networking.” “The information and sources provided, like all the info on EFSA’s website, methodologies and tools – particularly regarding the new methodology for meat inspection – are really important for Armenia.” For the future she reflects that, “For my country it is important to have more information on traceability and hazard analysis and critical control point systems. It would be great to have a regional workshop on this.”
Dr Karima Ouali from Algeria “learned a lot about EFSA and how it is organised and especially the EFSA Journal was interesting.” She added, “The sessions on animal health and on pesticides were interesting for me. In fact, all the presentations were useful!”
“As a small country we do not want to re-invent things,” says Ion Sula from Moldova, “but to transfer the experience and knowledge from the field which are linked to food safety.”
Head of Regulation and Standardisation, Morocco
When asked about the conference and his ideas for the future, Morocco’s Dr Lachhab would like “to have good cooperation with EFSA and to implement the ENP’s Deep and Complete Agreement with the EU. It is important for us to export our agricultural products to the big EU market with the highest standards of excellence possible.”
Ion Sula also commented at the end of the conference, “We are very energised by the conference and committed to improving our work in Moldova. We have challenges ahead but were inspired by the presentations we saw and the discussions we have had and believe that we can take these on and achieve them.”
EFSA is looking forward to building on this solid foundation and organising the next phases of the European Neighbourhood Programme. Next up is a two-day study session in Belgium, to be followed by a collaborative workshop that offers intensive guidance on each country’s particular areas of interest. In addition, EFSA will arrange visits to several ENP countries to bring them additional specific expertise and to further develop skills, knowledge and cooperation, continuing the positive path of this successful initiative.