Geoffrey Podger: European Parliament Environment, Public Health and Food Safety Committee, Brussels

Geoffrey Podger 

Thank you very much for the opportunity to appear before the Committee and to respond to your comments and questions.

As it is now two years since EFSA came into operation with the creation of the Scientific Committee and Panels, it is timely to summarise for you the progress which has been made in setting up the Authority and fulfilling its missions as set out in Regulation.

It is perhaps worth making the point at the outset that legally EFSA is a scientific risk assessment body with responsibility in this area for risk communication. We are not responsible for risk management measures or the operation of the food controls systems: these remain the responsibility of the European Commission.

Our main scientific activities are:

1. providing scientific opinions, guidance and advice in response to questions from the European Commission (currently easily our major customer), the European Parliament, the Member States and issues we ourselves have raised (approximately 30%);
2. assessing the risks of specific groups of regulated substances including assessment of pesticides, feed additives, GMOs and food additives (approximately 45%);
3. monitoring of specific risk factors and animal diseases and providing scientific opinions on tests and other tools to control these risk factors and diseases (approximately 10%);
4. development of new and harmonised scientific approaches and methodologies
(approximately 15%).

I hope the Committee will agree that in the last two years EFSA has engaged in a very large volume of fruitful activity

1. Well over 200 Scientific Opinions and a number of Scientific Reports, Statements and Guidance Documents have been adopted by the Scientific Committee, the Panels and EFSA.

2. Almost 400 scientific meetings took place in 2004 organized by the Scientific Committee, the 8 Scientific Panels and their working groups and Task Forces.
3. A few examples of opinions adopted that may be of particular interest to the European Parliament include: The Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies has adopted a series of opinions about the likelihood of adverse reactions in allergic individuals to specific product ingredients within the framework of the labelling directive. The Panel on Biological Hazards has for instance published an opinion on microbiological risks in infant formula. This panel has also addressed one issue from the Parliament, the safety of goat milk and goat milk products. Further advice regarding the safety of goat meat is expected later this month. The Panel on Contaminants has adopted an opinion about the safety of methylmercury in food which has contributed to a discussion on the risk and benefits of eating fish. This panel has received questions from the Parliament for the safety assessment of farmed and wild fish and also the health risks related to the consumption of Baltic herring. It is expected that this very comprehensive opinion will be adopted on 23rd June, as scheduled.

4. The Panel on Food Additives, Flavourings, Processing aids and Materials in Contact with Foods has evaluated new food additives and re-evaluated others. A huge task for this Panel is the evaluation of chemically defined flavourings. The evaluation of some 1000 substances were initially delayed as the Panel questioned the method of predicting exposure to the flavourings as applied in previous evaluations before EFSA. After having agreed on a more conservative exposure model to better protect consumers, the Panel is now catching up on the delay and 128 substances were evaluated in 2004 and so far 56 this year. Also 33 food contact materials were evaluated. The Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms has elaborated a guidance document for the risk assessment of GM plants and derived food and feed and organised an extensive consultation on this document. The Panel has adopted several opinions on specific products under the GMO legislation and
the Panel has also initiated a number of self tasking projects on risk assessment approaches (on allergenicity and animal studies) and post market environmental monitoring. The Panel on Animal Health and Animal Welfare adopted, among others, opinions on the transport of animals, castration of pigs, stunning and killing methods for slaughter animals.

5. EFSA has invested in building up its capacity in identifying and evaluating emerging risks. The Scientific Committee has developed a new harmonised approach for the risk assessment of substances that are both genotoxic and carcinogenic. Furthermore, it is developing a strategy for the assessment of botanical preparations in food supplements. Most importantly, EFSA is currently developing tools and methodologies to make risk assessments more transparent, taking into account uncertainties and animal welfare issues. This project which
involves experts from other international organizations and several Commission Services is expected to deliver its first recommendations in 2006.

6. In order to stay on the fore-front of scientific developments in food science, EFSA has initiated the concept of Science Colloquia. These meetings bring together scientists to have fundamental discussions on important issues. There is no other agenda than to exchange views and share knowledge. The outcomes of these colloquia, which are made public, provide EFSA with a plethora of sound scientific building blocks to develop its strategies and improve methodologies. The most recent Science Colloquium was on the collection of information to establish a truly harmonised EU food consumption database.

7. One of the several large scientific projects is the new task assigned to EFSA to take over the responsibility for the Community Summary Report on Zoonoses and linked to that the reporting system required in the legislation. The reporting system developed has improved the analyses of the data and also the harmonisation of the monitoring and reporting approaches.

A key issue for EFSA has been that of openness and transparency. The proceedings of the EFSA Management Board are relayed over the web and also open for attendance by Members of the public. Only for a very small range of management issues has it been necessary to meet in private, as the Regulation allows. All scientific opinions are published on the EFSA website and we have, for the first time at EU level, provided a comprehensive time chart for opinions whether finalised or still under discussion. EFSA receives many requests for access to documents, which we deal with strictly in accordance with EU law. Our general stance is to want to make as much as possible publicly available, subject only to safeguarding information which is really commercially confidential. Nevertheless it has to be stressed that under EU law there are a number of areas, not least GMOs, where EFSA is obliged to follow confidentiality assignments
made by either Member States or the Commission.

EFSA has continued to build strong relations with colleagues in national food authorities through the mechanism of the Advisory Forum. These activities are again well documented on our website. I would stress that our co-operation with national food authorities relates both to risk analysis and its subsequent communication. We have been particularly concerned to link national authorities with EFSA, and indeed each other, not least to provide a basis for giving the European public consistent science-based messages to deal with food scares. The Advisory Forum has included the new Member States since its inception in 2003 and we hope shortly to welcome Romania and Bulgaria as observers. EFSA is also assisting our counterparts in Romania and Bulgaria through a Phare programme.

With regard to risk communication, EFSA’s main face to the public is to be found on the website which now records more than two million “hits” per month. We do of course engage in much work directly with the media and have issued more than 60 press releases. Our co-operation with national food authorities, which I have described above, provides us however with an additional very effective means of ensuring that core EFSA scientific messages are communicated across the European Union in a manner which is also linguistically and culturally sensitive.

EFSA has also been very anxious to keep in close touch with its stakeholders consumers, NGOs and industry. In 2003 we held a major stakeholder meeting in Ostende and in 2004 in Berlin. In addition, there have been panel “open meetings” with interested parties and we are proposing to the EFSA Management Board to set up a stakeholder platform for our most regular contacts. We shall have a further wider gathering of stakeholders in 2005.

Regarding our staff, EFSA currently has 150 coming from 15 Member States. EFSA has done well in terms of gender balance (with a majority of female staff overall and in the “A” grades) but, like other EU agencies, would still like to attract more staff from the new Member States. It is a particular concern of ours to preserve our ability to recruit particularly scientists at senior levels. We cannot function purely by recruiting
junior scientists, however able, who have no experience beyond their university education.

EFSA itself is currently moving to Parma in Italy and one third of the staff, including myself, are already based there. We have received the highest level of co-operation from the Italian Authorities at all levels of Government. We have quite deliberately moved on a phased basis to reflect the timing of facilities (including secondary schooling) becoming available. Newspaper reports claiming a reluctance by EFSA to move to Parma are, quite simply, journalistic inventions. By mid-October the whole of the Authority will move to Parma and the offices in Brussels close. We look forward to the visit to Parma by members of the Environment Committee in the autumn.

Finally EFSA is currently being evaluated under Article 61 in its Founding Regulation in 2005. I am grateful to individual members of the Committee who may already have been involved in this process. When the evaluation is concluded, the Management Board will, as required, examine the conclusions and issue to the Commission its recommendations including possible changes to EFSA and its working practice. These documents will of course be forwarded to the Parliament and the Council and any subsequent changes would need to be made within the codecision procedure.

Thank you very much for your attention and for the help members of this Committee have given EFSA.