Address to BEUC General Assembly, Brussels

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Dear President, Dear Director General, Dear Jim
Ladies and Gentlemen,

I would like to begin by saying how pleased I am to be here with you on the occasion of the General Assembly of BEUC and I would like to thank you sincerely for inviting me and for giving me the opportunity to address this forum.

EFSA was set up by European legislators 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 was designed to be an integral part of the overall EU food safety system, independent in its conclusions but accountable for the key role it plays in supporting risk management activities at both the EU and national level.

This year we are celebrating EFSA's 5th anniversary and it is a good time, not just to take stock of our achievements, but more importantly to build on them and to look to the future. As we review our performance over the past five years, it becomes clear that EFSA’s achievements were only possible thanks to the support and cooperation of the EU institutions and Stakeholders. I would like to take this opportunity to thank consumer groups – BEUC and its Members – for the support you have given us since the very early days of our operations and for the confidence you place in our work. But I also thank you for the challenges that you have given us – we open our “books” for our stakeholders so you are able to scrutinize our activities and processes, and your input is critical for us.

Let me start by going back 5 years. I think it is important to remember that the remit of EFSA was specifically developed to improve EU food safety and rebuild consumer confidence in the EU food supply and in the system that underpins EU legislation. It is all too easy to forget the real crisis of confidence that can occur when there are national or EU-wide food scares. At the time of the EFSA’s inception, consumers had been bombarded with information - and sometimes misinformation - on a range of scares: BSE and the link to new variant CJD, Salmonella, Listeria, Dioxin and many, many others. I think it is fair to say that the public did not always have an authoritative source of advice and information, which led to confusion and doubt over the safety of our food supply and even scepticism about those responsible for protecting it.

It is therefore not by accident that the legislator gave EFSA the important guiding principles of scientific excellence, independence, transparency and openness – and I would add another key principle: responsiveness. With these guiding principles, EFSA can deliver authoritative Europe-wide assessments of risk, providing the risk manager with the basis for appropriate measures to address the risk, while at the same time communicating accurate information.

Unless the scientific basis for EU food law is trusted and comes from a reliable source, risk managers will not be able to build confidence in their decisions. EFSA as you know is not part of the EU risk management institutions; it is managed by an independent Board which gives us this cherished independence. It is important that our working methods, our experts and staff work independently of undue influences. But while the independence of our work has to be guarded and managed so that we are free to draw our conclusions on scientific risk assessment, EFSA plays an integral part in the EU food law system within which we are accountable for our advice. We are the first step of the process, our opinions are there for the legislators to use.

To be authoritative, EFSA has to be known and trusted and its scientific assessment work robust and open to scrutiny. But EFSA is only 5-years and we have to continue to build our profile and gain the trust of consumers, ensuring that we have the highest standards. It is not enough for any organisation to state that it has the best standards unless it is willing for its processes and products to be reviewed and assessed. Hence, EFSA's work has to be conducted in a transparent manner and open to scrutiny by a wide range of stakeholders, in particular consumer groups, and within EFSA we are committed to doing just that. I am confident that EFSA has high standards of science, independence and integrity but we are not complacent and will put in place in 2008 a system of internal and external review of our scientific processes and outputs, with the objective of continuous improvement.

Consumer confidence is of paramount importance to EFSA. The protection of the health of the European consumer is our main and ultimate objective. EFSA, as an integral part of the EU food safety system, accepts its responsibility, but all actors in the food chain have responsibility for its safety and for maintaining consumer confidence in European food safety systems. EFSA is accountable for the tasks and responsibilities entrusted to it by its Founding Regulation, both as a risk assessment body responsible for providing independent scientific advice and as a communicator of our findings.

The protection of the health of consumers drives EFSA‘s priorities and activities: allow me to focus on how EFSA operates to protect and improve the health of Europeans and to build trust in the systems designed to protect them.

Firstly, through our scientific opinions and reports we provide independent scientific advice to the risk managers at EU and national level. Our advice allows risk managers to take appropriate measures to protect consumers. I would like to illustrate this with two recent examples of how EFSA’s advice helped risk mangers to take immediate action to protect consumer health. For example, EFSA adopted its opinion on the colouring Red 2 G, identifying it as carcinogenic, in July this year, leading to the removal of the colouring from the market some weeks ago. Another example is the case of our recent advice on smoke flavourings, where EFSA’s Panel concluded that the flavouring in question can be regarded as weakly genotoxic in vivo. The Panel could not establish its safety for use as a food additive and immediate action was taken by risk managers to remove this substance from the market.

There are many other similar examples where Community action to safeguard public health has started with an EFSA opinion.

Secondly, EFSA contributes to the protection of consumer health by its activities related to the early identification and analysis of emerging risks and re-emerging risks. We have to “scan the horizon” to identify these emerging risks and provide the legislators and stakeholders with the information and advice they need in a timely fashion. We cannot achieve this on our own and we need the close cooperation of all competent authorities at the EU and national level, and of our stakeholders.

When a food safety problem arises, those responsible for managing the risk often find themselves in a situation of conflicting information while at the same time pressure builds to take action. This is also a time when consumers can become alarmed that the “powers that be” are not seen to be acting – EFSA is acutely aware of the possible damage these periods of uncertainty can cause. In the European system, EFSA must be able to provide risk managers with timely advice – science often takes time to reach a final definitive conclusion but EFSA recognises that risk managers cannot always wait for the final word. We have put in place quick procedures for emergency situations so that EFSA can provide risk managers with quick scientific advice without undermining the quality of the advice given.

Thirdly, transparency and openness are related principles that assist EFSA’s mission of rebuilding confidence in the EU food safety system. Since its early days, EFSA has opened its doors to stakeholders. This has been a key priority for our Management Board, and a milestone in the Authority’s stakeholder policy was reached with the establishment of the EFSA Stakeholder Consultative Platform in 2005 which – I’m pleased to say – is chaired by a BEUC representative, Sue Davies.

In our daily work, it is extremely important to be aware of the concerns of stakeholders, what you expect from us and how we can meet your expectations. Therefore, EFSA attaches great priority to meeting stakeholders and to discussing issues that might be on your agenda; issues that might be “known”, such as our “old friends” salmonella, contaminants, additives, flavourings etc. or “not so well known”, such as nanotechnologies, cloning, climate change and its possible effects on animal diseases to name but a few.

We know that many of these latter topics are high on your agenda and EFSA will continue to consult with you – through both web-based public consultations and dedicated meetings – to explain its mandate and remit on these issues. We will listen to your views and concerns with the aim of addressing them in the final outcome of our scientific work and related-communications. These areas will present particular communication challenges that we are already beginning to address – your input into these areas is crucial.

Lastly, I think there is another crucial point in maintaining consumer confidence in EFSA’s work: I am referring to the involvement of stakeholders and in particular consumer groups in public consultations.

Consulting stakeholders and the public in general is very important for the acceptance of our scientific output. Therefore, we will continue to hold public consultations and, on sensitive issues, we will organize dedicated meetings to facilitate the exchange of views between stakeholder groups and experts in our Scientific Committee and Panels. These meetings will be held in addition to the web-based consultations. We have “tested” this “model” in the recent past in the context of the draft Guidance Document on health claim submissions and it proved to be very fruitful for all parties involved. We have received more than 300 comments that were all considered by the Panel in view of its final Guidance Document. We will repeat such exercises in the future and we plan to have a meeting on cloning early January 2008.

To be able to continue to improve and strengthen the involvement of our stakeholders in EFSA‘s activities, we are carrying out an external evaluation of our stakeholder activities as we want to measure the effectiveness and added-value of activities we are undertaking with stakeholders. Activities covered in this review include: EFSA’s public consultations, technical meetings, annual colloquia, and the Stakeholder Consultative Platform. The report will include recommendations to EFSA for future improvements in our dealings with stakeholders. BEUC has been approached by the external evaluator in this regard and I would like to invite you to participate fully in this exercise and provide us with your views.

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, stakeholders and ultimately the public at large.

Communicating on complex scientific matters is quite a challenge and we are fully aware that there are different perceptions of risk around the EU. EFSA works with those organizations that are in close contact with consumers and thereby can deliver a more meaningful message. We not only communicate our messages directly but also through the national food authorities who know how to craft messages to address national concerns.

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 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 difficult to hope to reach effectively nearly 500 million consumers in the EU with a single message.

We are looking more and more to provide simpler communications and to increase our existing practice of notifying national bodies, stakeholders and international partners with information on our key opinions and reports in advance so that they may be prepared to address their own constituencies with accurate information from EFSA.

To conclude, let me reiterate that EFSA is committed to a high level of health protection for European citizens and to building and maintaining consumer confidence in EU food safety systems.

Through the activities of its staff and Management Board, its Scientific Committee and Panels, with the close involvement of the national food authorities and in dialogue with Stakeholders, it is my intention to make EFSA globally recognized as the European reference body for risk assessment in the fields of food and feed safety, animal health and welfare, nutrition, plant protection and plant health.

Before concluding, I wish to add a personal note of appreciation to Jim Murray for his valuable contribution to putting consumers in the driving seat of the food safety agenda and also for the excellent co-operation between BEUC and European Food Safety Authority. On behalf of EFSA, thank you.

I wish BEUC and its member organisations every success in your future activities and I look forward to working with you over the coming years.

Thank you for your kind attention.