Food Safety and Nutrition: from Science to Policy, Athens

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle 

Dear Minister, Member of EFSA’s Management Board (Konstantinos), President of EFET (Antonis), Chair of EFSA’s Stakeholder Platform (Andreas), distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

On behalf of EFSA I would like to welcome you to this joint conference and I would like to thank the Greek authorities, and particularly our co-organisers the Hellenic Food Authority, for hosting not just this important event but also the meeting of EFSA’s Advisory Forum and the workshop on botanicals that have taken place earlier this week here in Athens. The programme over the next couple of days brings together an impressive line-up of speakers and it is very encouraging to engage such a wide representation of stakeholders and interested parties.
I am always delighted to visit Greece, and in particular Athens, not just because it is a beautiful city and because EFSA receives a warm welcome here, but also because it is an excellent opportunity for EFSA to work with your national authorities and all stakeholders so that together we can continue to strengthen European food safety. As we approach the tenth anniversary of the European Commission’s White Paper on Food Safety in January, the theme of this conference provides a timely reminder of one of the key changes that the White Paper introduced: the functional separation of risk assessment and risk management.

It is important I believe to remember EFSA’s raison d’être. The 1990s were characterised by a series of damaging food crises, the most damaging involving BSE and dioxins. Those crises provoked much public concern and, as a result, confidence in European food for both consumers and trading partners was severely compromised. EFSA was established in 2002 as a direct response to those crises as the EU’s independent risk assessment body and its Founding Regulation emphasised science-based policy, cooperation and for the first time recognised the separate and distinct processes of risk assessment on the one hand and risk management on the other.

The legislators, the European Council and European Parliament, also acknowledged the fact that the food chain is a continuum and that food safety issues cannot be tackled in neatly packaged boxes. Rather, the food chain is closely interconnected and problems must be addressed in an integrated manner by all players. Each player has a unique responsibility to ensure that food is safe and to promote consumer confidence in Europe’s food. Although the questions we receive are usually very specific, our mandate obliges us to provide integrated, comprehensive scientific overviews and to communicate our findings in a clear and coherent manner.

The scientific underpinning of European legislation has been greatly reinforced by the increasing level of resources devoted to scientific risk assessment. To give a few figures: EFSA has a staff of over 400 and about 60% are engaged in scientific activities. Along with 30 national food safety agencies we form a tight network, and more than 350 scientific organisations in the Member States work with us as part of that network. We have over 1500 experts in all fields, from countries inside and outside the EU, helping us in our day-to-day work of providing scientific advice.

We maintain highly active communication with all those involved in the food chain and we work closely with risk communicators in the Commission and national agencies. We have put in place stringent operating procedures and policies to safeguard the independence and credibility of our scientific advice and ultimately to build consumer trust.

As a public science-based organisation, the concept of “science to policy” is particularly close to our hearts. Independent science is and will continue to be crucially important in the regulation of food and feed. As the crises in the 90s have shown, this is the only way we can effectively protect consumers. Although it is neither a research organisation nor a decision-maker, EFSA plays a crucial role in the regulatory framework related to European food and feed safety. We strive to ensure that the Authority is efficient and equipped to deliver timely, high-quality scientific advice. To do so, we have to anticipate and pre-plan the impact of proposed changes in existing or new legislative proposals and that is why our dialogue with risk managers, the European Commission and European Parliament, is so crucial. Particularly noteworthy are the demands arising from applications for authorisation – an activity with legal deadlines – which currently requires up to 35% of our resources.
These applications relate to food and feed additives, flavouring substances, GMOs, packaging materials, pesticides, novel foods and, since last year, to health claims. Last month, we issued the first series of opinions on health claims, a total of 94 opinions on 523 claims, and by July 2010 we are scheduled to deliver opinions on a further 1200 claims. The sheer volume of this work has been demanding but it plays an important role in protecting the European consumer.

Of course, our work in nutrition is not limited to health claims. EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies performs other key tasks to assist decision makers in relation to healthy diets and the reduction of obesity and overweight in Europe. For example, in 2010 we will publish dietary reference values for energy and macronutrients which will be essential in helping national risk managers to establish dietary guidelines. And as the burden of obesity and chronic disease continues to drain our healthcare resources, those guidelines are needed. Even here in Greece – the heartland of the Mediterranean diet with its traditional emphasis on healthy eating (fruit, vegetables and olive oil) – the latest WHO statistics indicate that 26-30% of adults are obese.

Chronic lifestyle- and diet-related diseases are a significant cause of mortality and morbidity right across Europe and there can be no denying the need for coordinated, effective and science-based nutrition policies.

Scope of EFSA’s remit
The availability of expertise across a wide number of disciplines is critical for EFSA in order to respond to the diverse range of questions we receive from risk managers. Through its Scientific Committee and ten Scientific Panels, EFSA is committed to providing risk assessments on a European level. Our Founding Regulation has conferred a wide remit on the Authority, covering the entire food chain and associated areas such as animal health and welfare, plant health, pesticides and nutrition. Increasingly we are asked to work in areas not traditionally regarded as belonging directly to the food safety domain. We should remember that food safety is a broad field, intimately associated with the environment, and the sustainability of our food production practices is an important issue for all of us.

Scientific cooperation
Cooperation with Member States is central to our ability to deliver and we have built close working relationships with them at all levels of the organisation. The formal structures to implement cooperation are well established. The Advisory Forum brings together representatives of all 27 national food safety agencies and is supported by a network of national Focal Points who act as ambassadors of EFSA in the Member States. In 2009 we have funded projects in Member State institutions to the tune of over 7 million Euros. The focus of our efforts in cooperation is now moving towards building an integrated risk assessment capacity across Member States and at the EU level. This requires that our work programmes are dovetailed as much as possible so that Europe’s precious resources are used judiciously.

We are also continuing to build effective working relationships with our sister EU agencies so that synergies can be exploited. We collaborate with the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention on, for example, antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic diseases. Similarly, we work closely with the European Medicines Agency on issues such as botanicals and veterinary drugs and with the European Chemicals Agency with whom we have a shared interest in the risk assessment of chemicals.

Rapid response
The importance of cooperation is particularly emphasised during urgent events. We have been called upon to act quickly in providing advice to ensure that urgent situations do not become major 1990s-like crises that can threaten public health or disrupt trade. Issues like melamine in food demand that we act within days rather than weeks or months and we are happy that our rapid response to that particular event enabled risk managers to take timely decisions. Experience has taught us that prompt and independent risk assessment, transparency, information sharing and coherent communications are central to the successful mitigation of risks.

The advice we issue to the legislators impacts on the daily lives of European citizens and, through our stakeholder consultation initiatives, we strive to engage all players in the food chain, including environmental and consumer groups. Their input is precious to us, particularly in fields such as GMOs or animal cloning where there is significant divergence of views among the various actors. EFSA has a proactive policy towards stakeholders and especially consumer groups by engaging with them in an open dialogue.

We have launched public consultations on many topics such as nanotechnology and animal cloning and we have recently renewed the Stakeholder Consultative Platform. We are particularly happy that the Chair of the Platform, Andreas Varlamos, is with us today.

Innovation and communication
Science does not stand still and our scientists continue to extend the boundaries of our knowledge in all fields of endeavour.

The Lisbon strategy and other policies encourage industry to be innovative and to create tomorrow’s food technologies and food products. For risk assessors, innovation can be a mixed blessing, because while it provides technical solutions to problems, it can also - not always but sometimes - bring significant challenges not just in risk assessment but also in risk communication.

Communicating more effectively the risks and benefits of new technologies is always challenging as there will be gaps in information and areas of scientific uncertainty that need to be addressed. Eurobarometer surveys over the years have shown us that there are diverse perceptions of risk across Europe and, as well as producing clear, coherent communication, one of EFSA’s goals is to gain a better understanding of consumer perceptions with a view to communicating more effectively.

Of course food has many other dimensions besides safety: there are social and cultural dimensions that must be taken into consideration. Furthermore, citizens take values such as organic, free-range, animal welfare, ethics, environmental impact and fair trade into account in their food choices. The consumer acceptability of products from cloned animals illustrates this. The Flash Eurobarometer on cloning of animals published in October 2008 showed that more than 60% of respondents had moral objections to the technology and a similar proportion indicated that they would be unwilling to buy meat or milk from cloned animals. Europe has learned from the animal cloning debate that, as well as safety issues, ethical considerations must also be taken into consideration and that public consultation is a prerequisite for informed debate on sensitive technologies.

In conclusion, the provision of independent scientific evidence to Europe’s risk managers will continue to be a crucial element of policy in food and feed. We need to continue to build together transparency and inclusiveness in the way we address scientific issues so that consumers are able to understand what we are considering, why and how.

This will assist us in building a broader understanding of, and trust in, the scientific issues underpinning policy.

To finish I would like to thank EFET for its collaboration in organising this conference. In addition I would like to thank the Greek members of the Advisory Forum and Focal Point network, all the Greek experts who contribute to our work, the Greek member of our Management Board, Konstantinos, chair of the Stakeholder Platform, Andreas, and former Management Board member, Angeliki Assimakopoulou, for their valued contribution to our work. I would also like to remind you that several of my colleagues are here to discuss and present in more detail many of the issues I have only touched upon here.

Thank you very much for your attention and again I wish you a very fruitful meeting.

Published: 26 November 2009