European Food Science Day 2009: Assessing and Communicating Risks Related to Food Safety, Brussels

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle


Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you in Brussels this morning and I am very grateful for the opportunity to address this conference. To begin with I would like to congratulate CommNet on its foresight in organising this conference with its impressive line-up of speakers to mark European Food Science Day 2009 and, on a more general level, on the valuable work it does in addressing the fundamental issues surrounding the communication of EU research on food and health to a wider audience. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), takes great interest in your work because communication – and in particular risk communication – is an integral part of our activities and we face many of the same challenges as the thousands of scientists in your networks of projects.
Like CommNet, we too have a close relationship with DG Research and that interaction is very important to us. Just yesterday, Mrs Rute, Director of Biotechnologies, Agriculture and Food presented its annual work programme to our Scientific Committee and that provided a very useful platform to exchange views on research priorities. EFSA’s scientific opinions frequently identify the need for further research and I would like to take the opportunity to thank Antonio di Giulio and his colleagues at DG Research for their ongoing support and cooperation in this process of prioritisation.

At EFSA we have a dual mandate: risk assessment and communication are the twin pillars of our work. We are aware that our risk assessments are not always easily accessible to the general public or other stakeholders. In one sense, that is not surprising as we operate in an environment of increasingly complexity and innovation and a widening gap between science and society.

Many of you will be aware that EFSA was established as the EU’s independent risk assessment body in 2002 following the damaging food crises of the previous decade such as BSE and dioxins.

Those crises provoked much public concern and confidence in European food, for both consumers and trading partners, was severely compromised. It was against this background that the first of a series of reforms to the European food safety system were introduced, beginning with the European Commission’s White Paper on Food Safety which will be 10 years old in January 2010. This far-reaching document proposed a new food safety model for Europe based on robust, science-based policy and encompassing the whole food chain, from “field to fork”.

It led to the enactment of EFSA’s Founding Regulation in 2002 which confirmed our broad remit and functionally separated risk assessment from risk management – a new departure for European food safety. In addition, the Regulation clearly defined EFSA’s role in risk communication, a responsibility we share with the European Commission, European Parliament and Member States. The advice we provide for Europe’s risk managers impacts on the daily lives of its 500 million citizens. This is most obvious when we have to respond to urgent events, such as melamine or dioxins, where the consumer can see the removal of foods from supermarket shelves. Equally, our recent opinions on health claims have far-reaching implications for both consumers and industry.

The critical factor however is that the decisions risk managers take are grounded in robust science, generated in an independent and transparent manner. That is what distinguishes Europe’s new food safety system and characterises our mission at EFSA.

Success of the new food safety model
As we approach the 10th anniversary of the White Paper on Food Safety, it is a timely juncture at which to reflect on whether the new food safety model has been successful. Compared with the 1990s Europe has - thankfully - been relatively free of major food crises over the past decade. The urgent incidents that Europe has had to contend with in the recent past – be they melamine in infant foods or dioxins in pork – have shown that the emphasis on prompt and independent risk assessment, transparency, information sharing and coherent communication that is explicit in the new model is central to the successful resolution of these issues.

At EFSA, we are committed to safeguarding our independence: we have elaborate systems in place to guarantee it. However, independence does not mean isolation – far from it. One of EFSA’s key functions is to build and coordinate networks of expertise across Europe and we are now seeing the fruits of our labours.

To be effective we need to harness the best scientific minds across Europe and I would like to thank those 1500 individual scientists who are the “engine room” of our scientific advice as well as the many institutions across Europe – more than 300 - who give up their staff to EFSA for significant periods of time each year. Their contribution to European public health is invaluable and it must be recognised and acknowledged. As a glance at the number of mandates we receive will reveal, we need all that support and more: by way of illustration in 2008 we issued almost 500 scientific outputs for risk managers, this year we expect the number will exceed 1000. Our staff numbers currently stand at around 450, most of whom are engaged in either scientific or communication activities. To help us manage our workload, we work closely with Member States through the Advisory Forum – where we have the representatives of national food safety agencies – and other mechanisms to ensure that we coordinate our work programmes and share information. We have established networks of 30 national agencies and more than 300 scientific organisations, many of which we engage through contracts and grants which together were valued at €7 million in 2009. As well as facilitating our work, these projects help to build risk assessment capacity in the Member States – an important consideration going forward.

We are reminded on a daily basis that we live in a global village and that the most challenging issues mankind faces are global in nature. Food safety is no different and increasingly we need to look outside Europe and to work with our international colleagues and counterparts. Those key global challenges will come as no surprise to you: climate change, globalisation and technological innovation.
Climate change is high on the agenda of governments across the world – next month’s Copenhagen conference provides testimony to that fact – and it has specific implications for food safety, and indeed food security. Changes in land use patterns, plant and animal disease distribution, water availability and soil contamination have the potential to reduce the safety, and by implication the security, of our food supply.

Statistics tell us that Europe is the biggest global trader in food products and the increasing globalisation of our food supply leaves us particularly vulnerable. A single food product may contain ingredients from across the globe, many of which may be produced to standards that vary significantly from those used in Europe. We must therefore remain constantly vigilant to threats and if possible predict and intervene before they impact on our food supply.

In that regard, EFSA has an important role to play in collating and analysing data from disparate sources to predict where the next threats will come from. The Community’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed is one important source of data but food industry is another and I believe that it is important to work with industry, as with all our stakeholders, so that we can use its data in particular for the early identification of emerging risks.

For risk assessors, scientific and technological innovation are both a blessing and a curse, providing on the one hand solutions to problems while on the other challenging our capacity to assess, and indeed communicate, risk in new fields – nanoscience is but one example of this. Communicating the risks and benefits of new technologies is always challenging as there will be gaps in information and areas of scientific uncertainty that need to be addressed. Eurobarometer surveys over the years have shown us that there are diverse perceptions of risk across Europe and, as well as producing clear, coherent communication, one of EFSA’s goals is to gain a better understanding of consumer perceptions with a view to communicating risk more effectively.

Food is not just about safety: cultural and social dimensions must also be considered. The consumer acceptability of products from cloned animals illustrates this. In 2008, DG Health and Consumers commissioned a Flash Eurobarometer survey on European public opinion on animal cloning. The results showed that more than 60% of respondents had moral objections to the technology and a similar proportion indicated that they would be unwilling to buy meat or milk from cloned animals. Europe has learned from the animal cloning debate that, as well as safety issues, ethical considerations must also be taken into account and that public consultation is a prerequisite for informed debate on sensitive technologies. But we are also encouraged by the results of this Eurobarometer survey as it states that scientists are trusted as a source of information.

Collaboration with EU institutions
Because the pool of scientific expertise in Europe is finite and much in demand, it is important to use that resource wisely. That is why for example we have built close 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 and with the European Medicines Agency on issues such as botanicals and veterinary drugs. In relation to climate change, we have agreements in place with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre to access their climatic and geographic data. Cooperation at the European level is critical, and the Eurobarometer survey commissioned by DG Research in 2008 shows that citizens support a more coordinated European research policy on issues of common interest such as health, environment and energy security.

In conclusion, Europe must continue to emphasise science in its food policy-making. The 2008 Eurobarometer survey I have just mentioned concluded that, while science is highly valued by society and is intimately linked to the idea of progress, there are fears and reservations in relation to its misuse.

Claude Levi-Strauss, the father of modern anthropology and sadly no longer with us, reminded us back in 1991 of the gap between science and perception: “for those of us who are neither astrophysicists nor biologists, the world which the scientists of today allow us to glimpse is as incomprehensible as that of mythology, if not more so.” As scientists therefore, we must accept the challenge to advance the cause of science by paying increasing attention to its relationship with society and explain in a simple manner how we are working on complex issues.

I wish this conference every success and I am pleased to announce that several of my colleagues at EFSA are present to participate in the later discussions.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Published: 18 November 2009