Open EFSA plenary sessions a welcome initiative, say scientists and observers

EFSA has been welcoming observers to its scientific meetings for just under a year. In that time many of the Authority’s Scientific Panels and its Scientific Committee have held open plenary sessions that have enabled interested parties to get a first-hand insight into how scientific risk assessment works at EFSA and to interact with the Authority’s scientific experts.

The meeting on 5-6 February of the Scientific Committee[1] was attended by a number of observers from interested organisations who heard discussions on a range of issues, including the Committee’s work on endocrine active substances.

One of those who attended was Stefanie Geiser, from European Advisory Services, which provides advice on regulatory systems particularly in the field of nutrition. She said: “It was good to see how everything is interlinked by the Scientific Committee. Transparency is obviously a good thing in principle but it also gives people a chance to see how EFSA works and to understand it better.”

Julie North, who works for TSGE Europe, an independent science regulatory consultancy, said that the meeting had “opened her eyes” to where EFSA sits in relation to the European Commission. “Often people have a tendency to blame EFSA for regulatory issues that are outside its area of responsibility,” she added.

Other observers said it had been interesting to see how the Scientific Committee works. They highlighted the introduction to the discussion on endocrine active substances as being particularly helpful. They also appreciated the opening remarks from the Executive Director, when she explained that the meeting would be flexible and that observers would be allowed to ask additional questions to those submitted in advance.

The Chair of the Scientific Committee, Tony Hardy, said that he was pleased to welcome interested observers to the plenary meeting and hoped that they had gained insight into the depth and character of the scientific discussions. “I see this as another positive step in transparency for EFSA,” he said. “The presence of the observers did not seem to inhibit our lively and detailed exchanges. And they were still there at the end of the meeting!”

EFSA’s Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes and Flavourings (CEF) held a plenary meeting at the end of January, which was well attended by representatives from industry as well as academia and public health authorities.

The subjects ranged from flavouring group evaluations to possible revisions to data submission guidelines for food contact materials. There were important presentations on the latest developments related to the Panel’s upcoming scientific opinion on bisphenol A, a substance used in food contact materials.

Observers at the CEF Panel meeting responded positively to the initiative. They said they were happy about being able to attend and table several questions about the submission of data necessary for flavouring evaluations.

Miguel Angel Prieto Arranz, who works for the European Chemical Industry Council (CEFIC), said: “I wasn’t disappointed. Speaking solely as a consumer, it was satisfying to see the Panel’s attention to detail when developing their scientific opinions.”

There were some academics among the CEF Panel observers. Stela Sava-Albaladejo from the University of Versailles, France, is a PhD student studying European food law and the roles of science in regulatory decision-making.

“There is a big gap between the academic theory and the practical world,” she said. “I don’t think academics really understand who makes the decisions and who assesses the risks. So that’s what I came here to find out.”

Wim Mennes, Vice-Chair of the CEF Panel, said that the presence of the observers did not inhibit discussion. “There might be a tendency during these kinds of things to watch what you say but I think there was a frank, normal exchange and nobody on the Panel held back,” he said.

The opening up of its scientific meetings to observers is part of EFSA’s ongoing efforts to further enhance the transparency of the risk assessment process. The initiative is also in line with the recommendations of the Management Board following the external evaluation of EFSA published last year and recommendations of the Authority’s Stakeholder Consultative Platform.

In order to help interested parties to understand EFSA’s work, substantial information is already available on EFSA’s website on scientific risk assessment, Panel roles, membership, declarations of interests and meetings. The Register of Questions also allows interested parties to follow the risk assessment process from start to finish.

Upcoming meetings that are open to observers include those of the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA Panel) on 20-22 March, and the Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms (GMO Panel) on 17-18 April. Anyone interested in attending can register here:

[1] The Scientific Committee supports the work of EFSA’s Scientific Panels on matters of a horizontal nature and provides strategic advice to EFSA’s Executive Director.