'Committed to the Safety of Europe's Food', 5th Anniversary of the Federal Institute for Risk Assessment (BfR) - Berlin
Dear Minister, Mr President, Ladies and Gentlemen,
I would like to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here in Berlin with you on the occasion of the Fifth anniversary of the BfR and I would like to thank you sincerely for inviting me to this auspicious event.
Our organisations’ activities mirror each other in many respects and, like the BfR, we at EFSA are also marking the fifth anniversary of our inauguration. In addition, we are also celebrating this year the 50 years of the Treaty of Rome. Because of this, 2007 is a very important year for both of us.
As you probably know, EFSA was set up by European authorities (i.e. European Commission and Parliament) in 2002 following a series of food crises in the late 1990s, as part of a commitment to ensuring a high level of food and feed safety and consumer protection.
To meet this mandate, EFSA has been constructed to be an integral part of the overall EU food safety system, independent in its findings but accountable for the part it has to play to support risk management work in Member States, including of course Germany. We are the first step of the process, our opinions are there for risk managers and legislators to use.
It is not by accident that the legislator gave EFSA the important guiding principles of scientific excellence, independence, transparency and openness. With these guiding principles EFSA can deliver authoritative Europe-wide assessments of risk on which risk managers can base their actions.
Through our Scientific Panels and Committee and by bringing together Europe’s best available experts and knowledge in food safety we have produced to date over 500 scientific opinions and reports on a wide variety of topics which now inform the policies and decisions of risk managers in the European institutions and Member States.
In addition to risk assessment, EFSA’s other primary aim is to communicate scientific information in a clear and understandable manner. The goal is to offer consistent, accurate and timely information for risk managers, risk assessment bodies in Member States such as the BfR, stakeholders and ultimately the public at large. Our challenge is to ensure that the conclusions of our scientific risk assessments are accurately translated into meaningful communications to the public: this requires close co-operation and teamwork between communications professionals and scientists.
In bridging the gap between the world of science and the consumer, it is important to know and understand consumer and public perception of risk and for an organization like EFSA, to understand, in particular, consumers’ attitudes to food and food-related risks. To address perceived risks, first of all we must identify what people are concerned about – and whether these concerns are scientifically justified or not – in order to be able to communicate the results of our risk assessment findings in a meaningful way.
Given the diversity in foods, dietary patterns, culinary traditions, attitudes to foods and food-related risks, it is neither possible nor desirable to hope to reach effectively nearly 500 million consumers in the EU with a unique message. Hence, the importance which EFSA attaches to close cooperation with national food safety authorities in Member States and stakeholders both in the development and the dissemination of its scientific advice in order to ensure that messages are culturally appropriate, meaningful and adequately address public concerns.
The results of a Eurobarometer survey on risk issues conducted by EFSA and the European Commission in 2005 showed the diversity in food-related concerns across the EU. Pesticide residues were the number 1 concern in Germany (as for consumers in 8 other Member States) whilst Austrian consumers worried most about GMOs, and consumers in Scandinavia cited the welfare of farmed animals as being a top concern. It is also interesting to note that, whilst obesity is no doubt the biggest diet-related public health issue today in the EU, “putting on weight” itself as a concern fell nearly to the bottom of consumers’ “worry scale.”
This research also confirmed consumers’ - and indeed I should say “our” - tendency to worry less about those risks over which we have some control in comparison with those that are imposed or involuntary. While consumers for instance identified food hygiene outside the home (such as in restaurants) as a key concern, they seem to worry much less about food hygiene inside the home.
Understanding consumers’ level of awareness and understanding of issues is also key to defining effective communications. This is an important challenge for those communicating on technical, scientific subjects, and on new technologies in particular. Another Eurobarometer survey on biotechnology, also conducted in 2005, showed the important knowledge gaps that still exist today regarding genes and genetic modification. This research showed for example that more than 1 out of 3 consumers in Europe believe that ordinary foods such as tomatoes do not have genes but genetically modified ones do. Against this background, one can perhaps better understand the level of concern expressed about genetically modified foods.
Looking ahead, technological advances in areas such as nanotechnology and nanoparticles, animal cloning and intelligent packaging will present particular communications challenges that EFSA is already beginning to address.
Understanding consumers’ perception of risk is critical to providing timely, clear and effective communications on food and food safety issues. Consumer perception research confirms the importance of developing and targeting messages to meet the needs of specific, and sometimes vulnerable, groups, utilizing those information sources which consumers trust most.
I mentioned cooperation previously and cooperation with the national agencies is without any doubt a key tool and a top priority in EFSA’s work programme. To be able to deliver the best risk assessments for Europe, EFSA has to be plugged in to scientific information and data available at the national and international level. EFSA has therefore signed a declaration of intent with the national authorities from all 27 member states and other neighbouring non-EU countries to facilitate the exchange of scientific information and data and ensure that EFSA has access to as wide a range of information as possible to draw its scientific conclusions.
It is for these reasons that I have made the furthering of collaboration and cooperation with Member States and the building of strong networks with national authorities one of my main priorities.
Of course, cooperation with Member States is not new. EFSA already works closely with Member States in a number of areas involving information and data collection, such as zoonotic diseases, dietary intake, and food additives. These synergistic relationships are very productive and I intend to build further on them.
By sharing information and being well informed about each others activities, we can move towards a more common understanding of both existing and emerging risks at national and EU level, be able to assist risk managers develop more coherent risk management strategies, avoid duplication of effort in risk assessment and improve the coherence of risk communications across the Community.
In this context, EFSA’s Advisory Forum is at the heart of our collaborative approach to risk assessment across Europe.
The Forum advises on our work programme, on emerging risks and allows for the effective sharing of information on food safety and risk assessment. The Forum also forges close links between EFSA and the 27 EU Member States.
The goal is to build strong cooperative networking between EFSA and the national food agencies and authorities working in the fields of risk assessment and communication. To facilitate information sharing, collaboration between national authorities, and coordination of risk communication, Focal Points will be established in all 27 Member States in 2008.
At this point, I would like to express my gratitude to the BfR for its cooperation with EFSA, in particular for its work in developing harmonized risk assessment approaches, but also for its immense contribution to the work of EFSA’s Advisory Forum - your input is much appreciated.
And EFSA is looking outside Europe: for example, recent discussions between the US Food and Drug Administration and EFSA representatives identified the need to have a firmer basis for cooperation. After consultation, EFSA and the FDA reached an agreement on a final document, a statement on confidentiality arrangements. On 2 July, we reached a milestone in international co-operation between risk assessors by signing a confidentiality agreement with the FDA.
With these new arrangements, the confidentiality of information is clarified, thereby facilitating information exchange. This will assist EFSA undertake scientific risk assessments based on data from around the world and from the scientific community on both sides of the Atlantic.
We hope to reach similar agreements with the national food safety authorities of Australia and New Zealand and Japan, as well as cementing our relationship with the WHO.
As I mentioned at the outset, 2007 represents the fifth anniversary of EFSA’s inauguration and we have already staged a series of events and activities that explored EFSA’s achievements and its future direction in relation to a number of key objectives.
Later this month, EFSA will hold a Scientific Forum in Brussels. This event will give us the opportunity for debate and discussion with the scientific community and other interested parties, such as the media, consumers and industry, on many of the issues that make headlines and have political, ethical and economic implications across Europe.
The Forum will be immediately followed by a high level Food Safety Summit on 22 November, organised jointly with the Portuguese Presidency in cooperation with the European Commission and the European Parliament, to reflect on the future role of EFSA’s scientific work in the EU system. There will also be an exhibition on EFSA in the European Parliament from 19–23 November.
We hope that, through these activities, those interested in food safety in Europe can understand more about who we are, how we work and our achievements over the last five years. Participation and interaction are key concepts for EFSA and so we encourage those interested in our activities to follow developments on our website, watch the webcastings of key events and participate in events in Member States and Brussels.
Through the activities of its staff and Management Board, its Scientific Committee and Panels, with the close involvement of the national food authorities and dialogue with Stakeholders, it is my intention to make EFSA globally recognised as the European reference body on risk assessment on food and feed safety, animal health and welfare, plant health and nutrition.
I would like to say Happy birthday and wish the BfR every success in its future activities. I look forward to working with you over the coming years.
Thank you for your attention.