'Is the Battle to Improve Consumer’s Trust in Science and Science Based Policy being Won or Lost', Delivering for Tomorrow's European Consumers, Brussels

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Speaking Notes

Dear Mr Sorensen, Distinguished guests,

I would like to thank Robert Madelin and his team for enabling me to address you today on the issue of trust in science and science based policy. EFSA was created following several wide reaching food safety crises in the 1990s and our mission is to contribute to the rebuilding of the trust of consumers in the EU food supply as well as strengthening the overall EU food safety system. To build trust, the legislators rightly identified the importance of the independence and quality of the scientific advice underpinning food law, the openness and transparency of the organization developing this advice, and the need to communicate, coherently, accurately and in a timely manner. These factors indeed are the building blocks of EFSA which has now matured into an organisation employing over 380 people, 60% of whom are scientists, networking with 30 national agencies and 250 organisations, working regularly with over 1000 scientific experts.

I would like to share with you the following observations:

1. Science based policy is and will continue to be crucial in food and feed areas

Independent scientific risk assessment advice is and will continue to be crucially important in the regulation of food and feed. We learned a lot from the BSE crisis and EFSA is in fact the concrete realisation of the vital role science plays in the area. And today in EFSA we see an ever increasing need for such advice with, for example, the number of questions rising from over 200 in 2003, to over 600 so far already in 2008 and this number does not take into account the thousands of health claims we received in July.

With increasing innovation being used in the food and feed supply, science will play an ever increasing role in assessing any associated risks. The effects of changing climate and other environmental pressure on food production may raise new risks and conversely new technologies used to produce food and feeds may have an impact on health or the environment, all of which will need to be assessed. We will need to be able to assess and compare risks in an integrated manner and considering any benefits to health or the environment so that risk managers have a comprehensive and accurate overview on which to take action. These points are picked up both in the SANCO future challenges document and in EFSA’s Strategic Plan for 2009 – 2013 which is currently out for public consultation on our website.

To be credible, independence and scientific excellence are important when assessing new scientific advances and I foresee a need to build further European and international networks to collect data and share best practices in risk assessment. Being fully informed about scientific innovation in the sector and the possible emerging risks that these may raise will be equally important. Scientific advances may also assist with our risk assessment work, for example, advances in genomics and proteomics may enable us to make more comprehensive assessments of risks in many areas.

2. Bridging the Gap Between Science and Perception

Science would argue that new technologies and innovation should be judged on their merit, safety, efficacy and benefit – these are entirely objective issues. But society takes into account other factors. Food is not just about safety – food also has cultural and social dimensions. Citizens consider values such as organic, free range, animal welfare, ethics, environment, fair trade as well as diet and nutrition.

The recent Flash Eurobarometer on cloning of animals published on 9 October 2008, found that 25 % of those questioned selected scientists as the most trusted source of information, with European and national food authorities second. But a majority of EU citizens said that it was unlikely that they would buy meat or milk from cloned animals, even if a trusted source stated that such products were safe to eat.

It is not by chance that EFSA has been given the joint remit of risk assessment and communications. It is important to communicate in an understandable manner on the scientific issues underpinning risk management actions so that the basis of measure is understood. To communicate effectively we have to understand consumers’ concerns and perceptions and take these into consideration. Given the cultural diversity of the EU, EFSA works closely with the communications departments of the national food agencies to build coherent EU wide approach and address different national perceptions. EFSA has also put in place an expert advisory group of communications experts, including social scientists, who have been particularly helpful in assisting with our recent work on nanotechnology and cloning.

I believe there may be many lessons to be learnt from the GMO debate about the nature and overall significance of information to consumers. For example, would more accurate, credible information of relevance to consumers particularly concerning any efficacy, or benefits to health or the environment have resulted in different views on GMOs today? Greater involvement in the debate, more transparency early in the assessment process, explaining how we address risk assessment including uncertainties may have enabled a more informed view.

3. What other initiatives should we consider to build trust in science and in science based policy?

Are there any other initiative we could consider to build trust in the scientific basis for policy? As I mentioned earlier, consumers have to be assured that their concerns and values are being addressed by the right body as well as the science and safety aspects. In the recent discussions on cloning, ethical concerns were referred to the European Group of Ethics by the Commission thus enabling these to be addressed seriously and visibly leaving EFSA to focus on its areas of expertise: looking at safety and animal health and welfare issues. This type of early framing of issues to understand and address concerns may provide some advantages on future complex matters for example nanotechnologies.

EFSA has a proactive policy towards stakeholders and especially consumers by engaging with them in an open dialogue. We have launched public consultations on many topics; nanotechnology and cloning are notable recent examples. We have also put in place an important dialogue with a Stakeholder Consultative Platform and hold regular technical hearings. But we are not there yet and I believe we need to reflect further on how to better build transparency into the way we develop out scientific advice with the objective of building further confidence.

Conclusion

So to finish I would like to answer the question: - Is the Battle to Improve Consumer’s Trust in Science and Science Based Policy being Won or Lost.

Science will continue to be a crucial element of policy in food and feed but we have to work more on bridging the gap between science and perception. I think that we are better equipped than we were in the past as we have a more comprehensive tool box to explain and compare risks and benefits raised by scientific progress. Our communications also have improved.

We need to be more open, transparent and inclusive in the way we address scientific issues so that consumers are able to understand what we are considering, why and how. Even more transparency in our risk assessment work could assist us build a broader understanding of, and trust in, the scientific issues underpinning policy.

Thank you.

This speech was delivered at the DG for Health and Consumers' high-level conference entitled "Delivering for Tomorrow's European Consumers", Brussels, 29 to 30  October 2008.