Food Safety in Europe: Objectives and Strategy of EFSA - Athens

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Speaking Notes

Dear deputy Minister, Mr Papadopoulos, President of EFET, Mr Zampelas, Consumer Secretary General, representative of Greek food industry, Management Board Members, distinguished guests,

It gives me great pleasure to address you here in Athens today and I would like to thank the Greek authorities for hosting not just this important event but also the 41st meeting of EFSA’s Management Board over the coming two days. I would like to offer a special word of thanks to Konstantinos, a valued member of our Management Board, for his input into both events. Today’s meeting provides a timely opportunity to discuss cooperation and to obtain both a Greek and European perspective on an issue that is high on EFSA’s agenda.

EFSA was established in 2002 as the EU’s independent risk assessment body in food and feed safety and related fields to renew confidence in the European food supply and contribute to the protection of public health. EFSA is a science-based organisation which operates on the values of scientific excellence, independence, transparency, openness and responsiveness. It now employs 400 people in Parma, Italy, 60% of whom are engaged in scientific activities. We have built extensive networks of 1200 scientific experts, 30 national food safety agencies and 350 national scientific organisations without which we could not deliver our mandate. We rely on the input of experts from across Europe – and beyond – and the goodwill of their institutions to produce the scientific advice that underpins EU food policy and legislation.

Scientific cooperation
As we have outlined in EFSA’s Strategic Plan 2009-2013, food safety faces many challenges in the coming years, not least the increasing globalisation of trade, climate change, scientific innovation and the socio-demographic changes taking place in Europe and beyond. While the independence of our scientific advice is paramount, the global dimension of tomorrow’s challenges obliges us to engage fully with the international risk assessment community. In particular, it is vital that we continue to strengthen our cooperation with Member States.

Only by sharing information and expertise can we can make effective use of synergies, benefit fully from the available pool of European expertise and avoid duplication of work and unnecessary divergence of opinion. In the current global economic climate, Europe’s resources must be used judiciously.

And as recent urgent events have demonstrated, it is important that EFSA has the capacity to use its cooperation with Member States and its networks of pan-European expertise to enable it to respond quickly to requests for scientific advice and to help risk managers with their decision making. We have responded – often within days – to incidents such as the recent nicotine contamination of wild mushrooms thanks to the strong networks we have built with the national authorities.

Strategy for Networking and Cooperation

Our activities in this field are guided by our Strategy on Networking and Cooperation which was prepared by the Advisory Forum and adopted by the Management Board in December 2006. A recent interim review of that Strategy indicated that significant progress in cooperation has been made at all levels of the organisation, particularly in relation to the exchange of information, sharing of workload and coherence in communication.

With the implementation of the Strategy, several dedicated scientific networks have been created or strengthened in the areas of data collection (for example food consumption and chemical occurrence data) and risk assessment (in particular animal health, plant health, GMOs and BSE). The main thrust of the Strategy is to strengthen cooperation with Member States through the Advisory Forum in collaboration with EFSA’s Scientific Committee and its four priority areas are: the exchange of data and information; sharing risk assessment practices; harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies; and coherence in risk communications.

Advisory Forum
EFSA’s Advisory Forum provides a mechanism to connect EFSA with the national food safety authorities of all 27 Member States and representatives from Norway, Iceland, Switzerland, EU candidate countries and the European Commission. I am delighted that we will have a joint event here in Athens at the end of November on the occasion of our Advisory Forum meeting. For us it is a crucial platform that facilitates information exchange, coordination of work programmes, identification and analysis of emerging risks, coherence in communication and reduces divergence and duplication.

To support Forum members, Focal Points have been established and are active in all Member States since 2007. Their top priorities are information exchange on scientific issues and risk communication. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Hellenic Food Authority (EFET) for its very active and valued contribution to the work of the Forum and Focal Points.

Article 36
Through Article 36 of EFSA’s Founding Regulation competent organisations can assist the Authority in its work. In 2006, our Management Board adopted a first list of public organisations that qualify for these grants and a revised list and work programme for 2009 were recently adopted by the EFSA Management Board. The Article 36 organisations carry out a variety of scientific tasks, in particular preparatory work for opinions and data collection, which are financed through grants. The total amount spent on both Article 36 and procurement activities will reach €7.5 million this year, compared with €5.8 m in 2008.

Scientific expertise
In addition to the more than 200 current Panel Members, a further 1000 ad hoc experts have supported EFSA in its work to date.
The Scientific Committee and Scientific Panels have recently been renewed with the new members taking up their mandates this summer. We were very encouraged with the response to the call for members, with 850 experts from across Europe and beyond applying – an increase of 7% compared to the last renewal in 2006. I would like to thank EFET for their assistance in promoting the call here in Greece.

In June 2008, EFSA launched a database of leading European experts which holds information on external scientific experts capable of and willing to assist Member States and EFSA on an ad hoc basis. The use of the database also enhances the transparency of our procedures for selecting experts. By mid-November 2008, more that 1000 applications had been received from over 40 countries including Greece. The database is also available to Member States who can use it to select experts for their own activities.

ESCO Working Groups
One of the other recommendations of the Strategy on Cooperation and Networking was to establish a Steering Group on Cooperation, which includes both the Scientific Committee and Advisory Forum, to provide oversight on joint projects or ESCO working groups.
These cover issues of interest to both EFSA and the Member States and to date have included projects on botanicals, emerging risks, the expert database, folic acid and harmonisation of risk assessment approaches.

One of this afternoon’s roundtable discussions will focus on risk communication and the speakers will include EFSA’s Director of Communication, Anne-Laure Gassin. EFSA is tasked with producing clear, concise and coherent communication in a timely manner for Europe’s consumers and, in doing so, gaining insight into consumers’ concerns and perceptions of risk.

Communication on risk is always challenging, particularly so when you are addressing a diverse, multicultural audience, such as that which makes up the EU population, and when the risk is associated with new technologies and scientific innovation where there may be limited information or data. Djien Liem, Head of EFSA’s Scientific Committee/Advisory Forum Unit will describe EFSA's work on new technologies later. To remain competitive, the Lisbon Strategy encourages European industry to become increasingly innovative and, as major contributors to the EU economy, the food and feed industries are no exception.
New technologies used in food and feed production may impact on public health or the environment which is why we are committed to assessing risk in an integrated manner and to considering benefits as well as risk. By doing so, we aim to give risk managers as comprehensive an overview as possible.

Experience has taught us that, when dealing with urgent situations, timely communication is of critical importance. To quote but one example – the recent incident related to dioxins in Irish pigmeat – the advice on risk we delivered on December 10, 2008 was accompanied by coherent communication which outlined the scientific basis for risk management decisions. This had the important effect of allaying consumer concerns and contributing to the implementation of proportionate risk management measures.

Emerging risks

One of the key drivers of our cooperation activities is the enhancement of European capacity to identify emerging risks. EFSA’s operating environment is influenced by many factors such as those already mentioned: globalisation, scientific innovation and climate change.

As we will discuss in this afternoon’s other roundtable discussion, one of the key areas in which EFSA contributes to food safety is through the early identification, characterisation and communication of emerging risks. To that end, our dedicated Emerging Risks Units is tasked with strengthening EFSA’s activities in areas such as climate change, in collaboration with the European Commission, Member States, other European institutions and international organisations. To do so, it analyses data and information needs in relation to, for example, climate change and strives to fill any gaps. EFSA will publish its first report on emerging risks in early 2010.

Future cooperation
We are working closely with the Scientific Committee, Advisory Forum and Management Board to develop our future strategy in the area of cooperation and this meeting is an important step in that direction. Later this week we will present a paper on our plans to boost risk assessment capacity in Member States, a step change in cooperation with Member States.

In conclusion, it is evident to all of us that, if we are to meet the objectives set out in our Strategic Plan, EFSA must strengthen cooperation with all partners and, in particular, with Member States.
As resources at both the European and national level become increasingly precious, it is imperative that we use that resource wisely, sharing expertise, data and work programmes and avoiding duplication and divergence wherever possible.

Thank you for your kind attention and I look forward to today’s discussions.