Address to European Parliament Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety, Brussels

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

 

Mr Chairman
Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

I am very honoured to be able to address you today and seek your views on the work and priorities of the European Food Safety Authority for 2008. I would also like to outline to you how EFSA has addressed some of the issues you raised when I was here previously.

EFSA’s work and priorities for 2008 reflect a continuation of this year’s programme and also sets the scene for the work programmes of subsequent years for which 4 activities have been identified for EFSA, namely to:
− Provide scientific opinions and advice to the European Institutions and the Member States,
− Enhance risk assessment methodologies in Europe,
− Communicate scientific advice and build dialogue with interested parties, and
- exercise sound management and efficient use of resources.

Since its establishment, EFSA has published more than 500 risk assessment opinions and reports. In 2006 alone we published 140. Up until September of this year we had issued 180. And on the basis of EFSA’s findings, rapid action has been taken by risk managers to safeguard health. For example, EFSA adopted its opinion on the colouring Red 2 G, identifying this to be carcinogenic in July this year leading to the removal of the colouring from the market. There are many similar examples where Community action to safeguard public health has started with an EFSA opinion. For example, in relation to Salmonella, BSE, avian influenza to name but a few.

EFSA’s workload is increasing year on year while in parallel, the complexity and often the urgency of questions rises. As I look to the future we will face new challenges due to innovative technologies, international trade, climate change, increasingly sensitive detection methods and new emerging risks. We are already looking at risk assessment methodologies for nanoparticles used in foodstuffs, and the animal welfare and safety aspects of foodstuffs derived from cloned animals. In animal health the move north of the Blue Tongue virus presents a significant challenge and may indicate an effect of climate change.

EFSA has to be flexible. As risks change EFSA has to assess and adjust its priorities. Since EFSA’s inception nutrition and the fight against diet-related diseases and obesity have become paramount. Of course, EFSA has an important role to play to assist you as risk managers assess and define policies to reduce these burdens. And we are active - working on the setting of Population Reference Intakes for energy, macro- and micronutrients. We will provide advice to assist Member States in translating nutrient recommendations into actual food-based dietary advice that consumers can easily follow. We are also looking at the harmonisation of food consumption data across the EU which will include dietary intake data for adults and children in many categories of foodstuffs.

Most recently, new tasks were assigned to the Authority under the Regulation on nutrition and health claims, including the work on setting nutrient profiles. Indeed EFSA is organising a Colloquium on nutrient profiling with the participation of international experts on 11 – 12 October.

In the pesticides area, EFSA also has an increasing workload. Up to now we have completed a total of 55 peer-reviews and we are working on a lot more. EFSA is also looking at proposed temporary EU Maximum Residue Levels.

Food additives are also high on our agenda now and in the future. We must evaluate around 700 additives and 2800 flavourings. On a current ‘hot topic’ we are looking at the recent report of the UK Food Standards Agency on the effects of a cocktail of different food colours and hyperactivity in children. And there is further work on the horizon with the coming into force of the new legislation on food improving agents and in particular the safety assessment of enzymes used in food production.

At the same time that our work load has increased, there has been a trend to shorten the time for EFSA to deliver its opinions. I must thank this Committee for your help in establishing more realistic timelines for us to do our work for example in the pesticide and food improving agents proposals.

Even with the growing demand, I hope you will agree, that EFSA must maintain its high standards, so that we provide the very best scientific basis for EU legislation. This is crucial. Bearing this in mind, I have put in place initiatives to ensure that EFSA can continue to deliver state of the art scientific advice, while being rigorous in terms of organisational efficiency and of course, cost effectiveness - streamlining what we do.

To give you a flavour, I have asked the Commission to use its comitology powers to create two new Panels to replace the existing food additives, flavourings and food contact materials Panel. This currently has the highest work load in EFSA. Dividing the work among two new Panels will speed up the evaluation process and overall output.

Our largest client, if I may say it this way, is the Commission. With the Commission EFSA is jointly examining likely work loads from them so that we can develop realistic expectations within available resources and capabilities. In particular we are focusing with them on our work areas where applications for the evaluation of regulated products are involved or legal deadlines have to be met.

With the European Parliament - I recognise that we still have to build further on the initiatives we have put in place so far to support you in your important work. Dialogue and responsiveness are important in assisting you. We welcome the recent possibilities we have had for our scientific experts to meet with you and also the valuable contribution of Mrs Liotard in providing a first port of call for EFSA. We will in the next few days be sending out for the first time a tailor made information sheet to you on topical issues and I look forward to your feedback on this.

The responsiveness of EFSA in times of emergency is paramount if risks are to be dealt with quickly. Scientific questions often require time for experts to investigate, reflect on and discuss. In my previous role as a risk manager I was often in need of urgent scientific advice. I therefore fully appreciate the pressure on risk managers to act swiftly and the need for a sound scientific basis for this action. I therefore asked the Scientific Committee of EFSA to look at how this could be done. With their advice and the endorsement of the Management Board we have put in place fast track procedures to provide the best available advice in times of urgency.

With the focus on the efficient delivery of EFSA’s core business I have reorganised EFSA’s structure. In addition to the scientific department on risk assessment which supports the 9 EFSA Panels and Committee, I have set up a new department covering scientific co-operation and assistance which will focus on the development of assessment methodologies, data collection, scientific cooperation and emerging risks.

EFSA continues to actively recruit personnel within the Establishment Plan agreed by the EP. Staff numbers will reach around 300 by the end of this year. More than half of our staff are highly qualified scientists selected according to their expertise and experience. This ensures that EFSA has a solid knowledge-base available in-house, which supports the more than 200 independent scientists active in the Scientific Panels and Committee.
This Committee has in the past expressed its concern that EFSA should continue to attract and keep the best available scientific experts in its Panels and Committee.

To address this, I have placed emphasis on improving their work conditions by assisting them with more routine or preparatory work where possible and relevant, raising their profiles and compensating them for the work they do for EFSA which is usually done on top of their normal work. The Management Board of EFSA has backed this approach and we will be implementing further measures in 2008.

I have paid a lot of attention to your views on independence which you expressed when I was here before. Not only should EFSA’s work be independently delivered it must also be seen and perceived to be independent. I have benchmarked best practice by looking at other agencies and organisations at the international, national and European level where declarations of interest are relevant and independence is a major value. Working with the Scientific Committee and staff we have now developed an enhanced system and application of our policies in this respect. The objective is to strengthen further the robustness and transparency of the existing system of handling such declarations.

Scientific expertise is by nature based on prior experience and therefore always based on an interest – in particular an intellectual interest - in one or another subject. This does not necessarily mean there is a conflict of interest. Whether or not an interest results in a conflict has to be assessed on a case-by-case basis.

At the September meeting of the Management Board, a revised policy on declarations of interests was adopted. This was complemented by a new detailed declaration of interest form, a comprehensive guidance document and associated procedures.

In essence, declarations have to be made at the time of nomination of the expert, annually and for each meeting a specific declaration will have to be made. These will be assessed by the EFSA secretariat following a formal and transparent procedure. Depending on the outcome of this assessment the experts’ participation may be restricted. Annual declarations of interest will be published on our website; the result of the assessment of the specific declarations of interest made for every meeting will be made public in the minutes. I will keep this system under constant review and make any improvements or changes if these are necessary.

Turning to another key issue in EFSA – Cooperation – this is essential for EFSA to be well informed and efficient. Food safety issues know no boundaries as foods are trading globally the recent problems with melamine brought this problem into sharp focus. EFSA is working closely with institutions and agencies outside of the European Union. On 2 July we reached a milestone in international co-operation between risk assessors by signing a confidentiality agreement with the US Food and Drug Administration.

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.

To be efficient EFSA is working closely with other EU agencies and bodies and in this respect we have initiatives with the ECDC, EMEA, the ‘REACH’ Agency, and also the JRC. I envisage greater development in this area in 2008.

With the present 27 Member States of the European Union we are in close contact through the EFSA Advisory Forum as well as building close links with risk management networks. This helps avoid duplication of effort at the European and national level. We have recently reached agreement on 8 co-operation projects working with experts from Member States, for example we have initiated projects on cooperation on emerging risks and also on folic acid.

EFSA is also using expert resources in Member States through outsourcing of preparatory work, working with organisations designated by the Member States as capable of assisting EFSA. So far we have launched 10 calls for proposals under this procedure o Article 36 in our Founding Regulation.

As you know, EFSA is five years old this year and I would very much like to invite you to take part in our activities to mark this. Our objectives are to focus on the lessons learned over the past five years and discuss with experts, scientists and policy makers the challenges and work loads foreseen over the next five years. We were honoured with the presence of MEP Vittorio Prodi last week in Parma where we marked the anniversary with a number of initiatives. We will hold a Scientific Forum on 20-21 November here in Brussels with a keynote address by Mrs Roth-Behrendt. This will be immediately followed by a high level Food Safety Summit on 22 November organised jointly with the Portuguese Presidency in cooperation with the Commission and Parliament to reflect on the future role of EFSA’s scientific work in the EU system. We will be honoured with the participation of the Chair of this Committee, MEP Ouzký at a round table discussions. There will also be an exhibition on EFSA here in the European Parliament from 19 – 23 November.

In conclusion I would like to reiterate my priorities for the following year and beyond. EFSA will continue to focus on its core business of delivering reliable robust risk assessments to underpin the EU food and feed law system. In the face of a growing workload, EFSA will focus on efficiency, cooperation and networking with national, international and European bodies. We will continuously review priorities with risk managers. Responsiveness on emerging issues will be key. In our communications coherence will be our goal. Above all EFSA will continue to pay attention to the independence of its work.

I am very grateful that you have supported the Authority so far and I look forward to working closely with you in the future.
Thank you very much for your kind attention!