Advising the EU on food safety – what motivates scientists to become EFSA experts?

Feature story
17 April 2013

EFSA relies on the expertise and judgement of hundreds of scientists to provide EU decision-makers with independent scientific advice on risks associated with the food chain. The Authority’s Scientific Committee and its ten Scientific Panels are each composed of up to 21 scientists from across Europe and cover a broad spectrum of scientific disciplines. They bring an abundance of scientific knowledge, critical thinking and practical decision-making experience to EFSA, ensuring the scientific excellence of the Authority’s opinions.

EFSA’s experts assume a great responsibility in the European food safety system, helping to protect European consumers. They also volunteer freely for this demanding work and are often required to give scientific advice at short notice and on the basis of complex scientific information requiring expert evaluation. Sometimes they may even find themselves in the public gaze because of the particular complexity or sensitivity of some of the scientific issues that EFSA deals with on a daily basis.

Why do EFSA’s experts take on this responsibility?

EFSA is currently seeking experts to renew two of its Scientific Panels in 2014: the Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources Added to Food (ANS Panel) and the Scientific Panel on Food Contact Materials, Enzymes, Flavourings and Processing Aids (CEF Panel). The ANS Panel works on important issues such as assessing the safety of food additives like sweeteners, preservatives and colours; the CEF Panel’s workload is equally sensitive concerning the safety evaluation of food flavourings, food enzymes and also food contact materials including plastics and resins used in food containers and food packaging. EFSA asked the current crop of experts from these two Panels what motivates them to be an EFSA Panel member. Understandably, each expert has his/her own motivations but several common themes emerged.

Interdisciplinary scientific collaboration

Dr Maria Rosaria Milana, a CEF Panel member, is a chemist with 30 years of experience of the safety of food contact materials at the Italian public health agency (ISS). “Our experience at EFSA allows us to integrate different pieces of knowledge from different countries, institutes and roles, but most importantly from different individual scientists. Each opinion is the fruit not only of EFSA but of the scientific background of all these scientists and the institutes behind them.”

Dr David Gott, a toxicologist specialised in toxicokinetics and metabolism studies at the UK Food Standards Agency (FSA), is a Vice-Chair of the ANS Panel. Dr Gott explained how “from my perspective finally revising the food additives guidelines [published in July 2012] was a great achievement and an example of how we strive to find the balance of scientific rigour, practicality, different concerns and proportionality.”

“EFSA provides so many opportunities to exchange scientific views in an integrated environment,” commented Dr Alessandro Di Domenico a chemist and CEF Panel member who has also worked on other EFSA Scientific Panels in the past. “This experience is a continuous cultural enrichment process for each of us since integrating scientific knowledge is also a normal outcome of working in Panels.”

New scientific approaches and methodologies

Prof Martine Kolf-Clauw, a toxicologist at the Institut National Polytechnique-Ecole Nationale Vétérinaire de Toulouse, recently joined the CEF Panel. “I am strongly motivated by widening my knowledge and skills on how scientific information is analysed and used in risk assessment models to get the best evidence base for risk assessments.”

Dr Birgit Dusemund of the ANS Panel is an expert in toxicology and pharmacology for Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR). She mirrors such sentiments: “I appreciate the discussions and cooperation with international experts on current questions of risk assessment in the food area. This extends to training in new methods and approaches relevant for risk assessment and their application.”

Prof Matthew Wright, an ANS Panel member, is a biochemist and toxicologist at the University of Newcastle, UK. “My involvement [at EFSA] has given me a much broader outlook in toxicology with its focus on regulatory aspects and the way that safety studies are used to conclude on safe levels of additives in foods.” He sees positive consequences for his academic work: “This feeds into my research and its potential translational aspect that could be used to assess the toxicity of food additives and chemicals. It has also enabled me to link up with toxicologists from other disciplines and to collaborate on research projects in our respective laboratories.”

Interface for national and European food safety issues

Dr Jean-Charles Leblanc is an exposure assessor at the French food safety agency (Anses) and a member of the ANS Panel. “The Panel’s exposure assessment work in updating guidelines for food additives submissions is a perfect example of a science-based contribution that will protect EU consumers and can be expressed in a transparent manner.” Dr Leblanc firmly believes that “overall this is contributing to the confidence European consumers have in food safety authorities”.

Chair of the CEF Panel Dr Iona Pratt is a toxicologist: “My work at EFSA is of great benefit to my work at national level because the ways of working at EFSA can be applied to national food safety issues.” Dr Milana elaborates this aspect further: “Now when I do a national evaluation, I write from the perspective that the evaluation could also be useful in the future for EFSA and therefore for other citizens in Europe and beyond.”

Dr Leblanc highlighted how “improving science-based approaches and transparency in EFSA’s safety assessments is helping public and private food risk managers to better understand where uncertainties are and where they should focus their priorities.”

Passing on the benefits to consumers

For Dr Roland Franz – a chemist at Fraunhofer and a member of the CEF Panel – passing on the benefits to consumers is particularly motivating. “The outcome of this work is directly beneficial to the consumer and in many cases forms the basis for EU decisions on regulation of these substances.”

The Chair of the ANS Panel, Dr Alicja Mortensen is a Senior Scientist at the National Food Institute of the Technical University of Denmark and has experience of veterinary pathology and laboratory animal science. She sums up this aspect: “The most important reason of all is making a difference to European food safety and contributing to the health and well-being of society.” Dr Di Domenico echoes such sentiments: “We do this because we wish, in the end, that our work will be effective in providing the right protection for the general public and for sensitive groups.” This message is brought home by Dr Pratt who reminds us that, “scientists like us, and our families, are consumers too.”

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Notes to editors:

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