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

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle
 
 
Mr Chairman, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

Introduction

I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this newly appointed ENVI Committee and to update you on the activities of the European Food Safety Authority. First and foremost I would like to congratulate you on your election to the European Parliament and to wish you every success with your new mandate. As this new Parliament begins its term, we are aware that we have challenges to face in food safety and consequently in the related fields of public health and the environment. As Europe’s scientific watchdog for food safety, we look forward to working with you to meet the collective challenges.

My appearance before you today provides the opportunity to update you on our progress and address any issues you may have. It also serves as a useful reminder that the Authority is at your disposal and ready to support your decision making with independent scientific advice. I mention the words “science” and “scientific” frequently in this address as it is important to emphasise that the delivery and communication of scientific advice is our core business and that we have no remit in taking risk management decisions.

Background of EFSA

The European Food Safety Authority was established in 2002 with the remit of providing a robust and independent scientific basis for Europe’s decision makers – you the European Parliament, the European Commission and Member States – and to communicate effectively on risks in the food and feed chain. Guided by our Founding Regulation, we are committed to operating on the principles of scientific excellence, transparency, independence and responsiveness, in cooperation with a wide range of stakeholders. The food scares of the previous decade emphasised the need to functionally separate risk assessment and risk management and the implementation of this new food safety model has been instrumental in efforts to strengthen food safety in the EU and restore the confidence of consumers and trading partners in our food supply.

Cooperation

The availability of expertise across a wide number of disciplines is critical for EFSA in order to respond to the diverse range of questions we receive from risk managers. We harness the expertise of more than 1500 experts from across Europe who unselfishly give their time for the protection of the European consumer. Through its Scientific Committee and ten Scientific Panels, EFSA is committed to providing risk assessments on a European level. Our Founding Regulation has conferred a wide remit on the Authority, covering the entire food chain and associated areas such as animal health and welfare, plant health, and nutrition. Increasingly we are asked to work in areas not traditionally regarded as belonging directly to the food safety domain – a member of the public looking at our opinions might wonder why we are addressing issues such as the welfare of fish, the environmental risks of GMOs or the efficacy of pesticides. But food safety is a broad field and the food chain has many interrelated links; food safety and the environment are intimately associated and the sustainability of our food production practices is an important issue for all of us.

Cooperation with Member States is also central to our ability to deliver and we have built close working relationships with them at all levels of the organisation. The importance of cooperation is particularly emphasised during urgent events; by way of illustration, the willingness of the Irish authorities to share data and information in a timely manner and work closely with us during the dioxin incident last year was invaluable to EFSA.

The formal structures to implement cooperation are now well established. The Advisory Forum brings together representatives of all 27 national food safety agencies and is supported by a network of national Focal Points whose top priorities are the exchange of scientific information and risk communication. More than 300 competent European organisations work with us and in 2009 we have funded projects in Member State institutions to the tune of over 7 million Euros. The focus of our efforts in cooperation is now moving towards building an integrated risk assessment capacity across Member States and at the EU level. This requires that our work programmes are dovetailed as much as possible so that Europe’s precious resources are used judiciously.

We are also continuing to build effective working relationships with our sister EU agencies so that synergies can be exploited.
We collaborate with the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention on, for example, antimicrobial resistance and zoonotic diseases. Similarly, we work closely with the European Medicines Agency on issues such as botanicals and veterinary drugs and with the European Chemicals Agency with whom we have a shared interest in the risk assessment of chemicals.

Capacity

EFSA today is a mature organisation of 450 staff, two-thirds of whom are engaged in scientific activities. We strive to ensure that the Authority is efficient and equipped to deliver timely, high-quality scientific advice. To do so, we have to anticipate and pre-plan the impact of proposed changes in legislation and that is why our dialogue with you is so crucial. The workload associated with applications for authorisation – an activity bound by legal deadlines – is currently demanding up to 35% of our resources. These applications relate to food and feed additives, flavouring substances, GMOs, packaging materials, pesticides, novel foods and, since last year, to health claims. Just last week we issued the first series of opinions on health claims, a total of 94 opinions on 523 claims, and by July 2010 we are scheduled to deliver opinions on a further 1200 claims.

Furthermore, the Commission will shortly return about 2000 claims for which additional information was sought and we will also receive 500 new claims. In relation to workload, these numbers speak for themselves and they emphasise the importance of having appropriate resources to deliver our mandate. Of course, EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, which manages health claims, has other important activities to assist decision makers in relation to healthy diets and the reduction of obesity and overweight in Europe. In 2010 we will publish dietary reference values for energy and macronutrients which will be essential in helping risk managers to establish dietary guidelines.

The productivity and delivery of EFSA has increased year-on-year. In 2008 we issued almost 500 scientific outputs whereas in 2009 that number is expected to jump to over 1000 and much of that increase is due to applications. We need that level of productivity because the number of mandates we receive is steadily increasing. Quality and timeliness are also crucial for the credibility of EFSA and to that end we have implemented a quality assurance programme for our scientific outputs and put in place fast-track procedures to respond rapidly to urgent events.

We have been called upon to act quickly in providing advice to ensure that urgent situations do not become major 1990s-like crises that can threaten public health or disrupt trade. Issues like melamine in food demand that we act within days rather than weeks or months and we are happy that our rapid response to that particular event enabled risk managers to take timely decisions.

The advice we issue to the legislators impacts on the daily lives of European citizens and, through our stakeholder consultation initiatives, we strive to engage all players in the food chain, including environmental and consumer groups. Their input is precious to us, particularly in fields such as GMOs or cloning where there is significant divergence of views among the various actors. We have taken several initiatives to enhance our engagement with stakeholders and Member States. We are currently renewing membership of the Stakeholder Consultative Platform – which includes representation from farmers, food industry, retailers, non-governmental organisations and consumer groups – to ensure that our activities in this area are effective and relevant.

Consultation with Parliament

Although EFSA has built its capacity to assess and communicate risk significantly, we cannot stand still. The support of this Committee has been instrumental in enabling us to deliver our mandate thus far and I am deeply appreciative of this. In 2008, I came here to consult with the ENVI Committee on our Strategic Plan for the period 2009-2013 and I am very grateful for the valuable feedback we received. That Plan, which outlines the challenges European food safety faces in the short- to mid-term and how we intend to tackle them, was adopted by our Management Board in December 2008 and we are now in the process of implementing its decisions. It serves as the basis for our annual work programmes and we have shared our 2010 draft programme with the European Parliament. That programme includes in particular two key initiatives for 2010 which are essential in strengthening EU risk assessment and for which your support is critical.

1. Data collection and analysis

The first of these initiatives relates to data collection and analysis. The ability to collect and analyse data underpins all our work; in 2009, we will have published nine reports on food contamination and foodborne diseases.

In May, we issued the Community Summary Report on Foodborne Outbreaks in the EU which will, to quote but one example, enable risk managers to monitor Salmonella reduction programmes. You have recently received our Annual Report on Pesticide Residues for 2007 which will provide the basis for the EU’s future monitoring programmes. By the end of the year, we will also send you a Report on Data Collection for Food and Feed Safety which will describe the current situation in Europe, identify possible weaknesses and make recommendations for improvements. I can tell you now that the report identifies the urgent need for comprehensive pan-European food consumption data to improve the consistency and reliability of our exposure assessments. Put simply, to assess the level of risk to which our consumers are exposed, we must know what they are eating. Food consumption data may not always be available for all Member States and when they exist they are not always comparable. The Pan-European Food Consumption Survey project, which we propose to start in 2010, will provide essential data for EFSA and will have other applications, for example in the field of nutrition where the data will be used to set science-based dietary targets. The data can also be used by Member States, research organisations, and the Commission.

A task of this magnitude and with such tangible benefits for the European consumer requires significant resources and, while EFSA is ready and willing to put as much resource as we can into this project, it will require a contribution from central EU funds and also from Member States. We hope and trust that Parliament will support this partnership to enable us to undertake this important endeavour.

2. Emerging Risks

The second key initiative in our work programme for 2010 relates to the identification of emerging risks. Europe can react swiftly in response to urgent food safety threats but it is also imperative that we are proactive in identifying and assessing risks before they can impact on our food supply. That is why we will present the first Annual Report on emerging food safety risks in Europe to you in early 2010. Trust in our food supply has been carefully built over the years but, as Europe has painfully learned, it can be damaged in a single incident. Therefore, we must continue to build our foresight activities in order to identify at an early stage emerging or re-emerging risks that may result from an increasingly globalised trade, climate change or technological innovation. To do so requires cooperation on a global level and with our stakeholders.

With our Scientific Committee and Panels, our Emerging Risks Unit is taking the lead with the important task of horizon scanning so that data and intelligence, which are currently held in many disparate places across Europe and beyond, can be effectively harnessed.

Conclusion

In conclusion, we need your continuing support, in particular for the two key projects for 2010 that I have described. They will bring significant benefits to European consumers and enhance the effectiveness of our work. We would be honoured and pleased to show you that work at first hand and with that in mind I would like to take this opportunity to invite you to EFSA’s headquarters in Parma in Italy.

Thank you for your attention and I am happy to answer your questions.

Published: 6 October 2009