'EFSA’s Role in the European Food Safety System: Achievements and Challenges' - Budapest

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Mr. Süth (Miklós), Chair (Árpád), distinguished guests,

Introduction

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today in Budapest and I am very grateful to the Hungarian Food Safety Office for the opportunity to address this seminar. Having recently celebrated our own fifth anniversary at EFSA, I am delighted to be able to contribute to this important event in the history of your organisation which has much in common with ours.

To begin with, I would like to come back to the establishment of EFSA if I may. The food scares of the 1990s seriously undermined consumer confidence in European food safety systems and the public were exposed to a plethora of confusing, and sometimes misleading, information. As a direct consequence, the European Commission published its “White Paper on Food Safety” in January 2000, a ground-breaking document that set the stage for the reform of European food safety systems and introduced an integrative approach to the protection of the food chain, from “farm to fork”.

Eight years on, the main pillars of that White Paper have been put in place, thanks to a series of regulations and directives, beginning with the most significant – Regulation 178/2002 – which laid down the general principles and requirements of food law and established EFSA.

The new European food safety system has, above all else, delivered one crucial reform: the separation of risk assessment and risk management. EFSA’s role is clearly defined as the EU’s risk assessor and the provider of independent scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain.

As the risk assessor, EFSA produces scientific opinions and advice that provide an evidence-based foundation for European policies and legislation and support the European Commission, the European Parliament and Member States in taking effective, appropriate and timely risk management decisions. It also coordinates pan-European networks of scientific excellence, collates and disseminates pan-European food-related data and interfaces with its international counterparts.

Operating with a commitment to openness, independence and transparency, EFSA works in cooperation and dialogue with all players in the food chain, in a manner similar to which I envisage your Scientific Advisory Board operates.

Achievements

Looking back over the past five years, we can say with some confidence that the fundamental principle of separating risk assessment and risk management is valid and brings many benefits to the European food safety system.
This message was reinforced at the Scientific Forum and Summit, organised as part of our own Fifth Anniversary events last November.

Since EFSA’s inception, we have published more than 650 opinions – 203 in 2007 alone – and processed more than 1600 applications. As more and more tasks are allocated to EFSA, we are encouraged by the confidence placed in our risk assessments but mindful of the surge in workload.

And, as you will be aware, we are judged not just on the quantity but also of course on the quality and usability of our outputs for risk managers. In April, we started to implement an internal quality review process for our scientific outcomes based on the advice given last year by the Scientific Committee. This system is comprised of self-review to ensure that the principles of best scientific practice are adhered to and an internal review by EFSA senior scientific staff not involved in the opinion. In 2009, the third component of the quality system – review by independent external scientists – will be introduced.

In addition, we continue to build our relationship with Member States to make effective use of synergies, benefit from the expertise available in Member States and avoid unnecessary duplication of work.

We started in 2007 to implement our Strategy for Cooperation and Networking and we have established working groups with the Member States on topics such as folic acid fortification, the safety assessment of botanical preparations, harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies and chemical occurrence data.

One of the tangible products of this cooperation has been the recent publication of a concise food consumption database. This valuable tool will enable the comparability of exposure data across Europe, thereby enhancing exposure assessment, a key step in risk assessment. Access to this database will provide benefits for both EFSA and Member States.

Risk communication is EFSA’s other core activity. We aim to provide consistent, accurate and timely information for risk managers, risk assessment bodies in Member States, stakeholders and ultimately the public at large.
Translation of complex technical material into an accessible format requires close cooperation between communications professionals and scientists – a key strength that we have developed in Parma.

As well as enhancing the coherence of risk communications across Europe, our Communications Directorate strives to gain insight into consumer perception of risk. Given the social and cultural diversity of Europe, it is challenging to reach nearly 500 million consumers, one of the key reasons why we focus on cooperation with national food safety authorities: to ensure that messages are culturally appropriate, effective and meaningful.

Challenges

But, we cannot be complacent with these achievements. We have to continue to be proactive in addressing change. Today, food safety – along with EFSA itself – is at a turning point.

An increasingly globalised supply chain and the associated movement of food commodities can inadvertently facilitate emerging or re-emerging risks.

In the same way as food travels, so do disease vectors, and animal and plant diseases are now regularly reported in parts of Europe that hitherto were regarded as free from those diseases. Climate change may further complicate this picture. In August 2006, outbreaks of Bluetongue, an animal disease affecting domestic and wild ruminants, were reported in several Northern European countries, a precedent perhaps of what we might expect from climate change in future.

Socio-demographic changes in Europe have influenced traditional diets, and obesity and its related disorders have started to challenge European public health resources.

Science advances relentlessly, leading to new food products and production methods. As detection methods become increasingly more sensitive and smaller amounts of substances can be detected, questions are triggered on the impacts of these substances on food safety. For example, since the discovery of acrylamide in foods in 2002, we have continuously monitored scientific developments related to its potential carcinogenicity. As I speak, a colloquium of experts that will review the state-of-the-science and discuss new scientific evidence related to the carcinogenicity of acrylamide is opening in Parma.

In addition, scientific research continues to build the food safety knowledge base, meaning that risk assessments have to be regularly re-visited in light of new evidence. New technologies, while they may bring many benefits and opportunities, can inadvertently also mean new uncertainties and new challenges for risk assessments.

As the public health implications of inappropriate diet become clearer, EFSA will begin to engage further in areas such as nutrition and risk/benefit assessments, in addition to delivering the advice risk managers need.

A particular challenge for EFSA is the impact of new food legislation on its workload. This can have a significant impact on our activities; by way of example, as a result of the regulation on nutrition and health claims adopted last year, 2000 claims will have to be evaluated by EFSA’s NDA panel in the space of one year. Similarly, the review of food additives and nutrient sources added to food by itself will require assessment of more than 900 applications, while the evaluation of flavourings includes 2800 substances.

All the factors I have mentioned emphasise the fact that EFSA’s work, and in particular workload, has changed radically since 2002.

Meeting challenges

So how are we planning to cope with this changing context and increasing workload while continuing to deliver timely, high-quality scientific advice?

Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts and we look to the cooperation of partners and stakeholders to exercise our mandate. Cooperation with the national agencies, like the Hungarian Office, is an essential tool and a top priority in EFSA’s work programme. We recognise the importance of the effective pooling of European scientific expertise and, to illustrate its commitment to cooperation, a Strategy on Cooperation and Networking was adopted by our Management Board in late 2006, with the first steps in implementation taken last year.

EFSA’s Advisory Forum is at the heart of our collaborative approach to risk assessment.
The Forum advises on our work programme and emerging risks and enables the effective sharing of information on food safety and risk assessment. It also forges close links between EFSA and national authorities in Member States. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our Hungarian member of the Forum, Mária (Szeitné Szabó), for her valued contribution and support for our activities.

Several projects have been identified by the Forum and are now being developed: safety assessment of botanicals, risks and benefits of fortification of food with folic acid (in which Mária is an active participant), creation of a database of scientific experts in Europe, food consumption data collection and harmonisation of risk assessment approaches. Hungarian scientists are actively involved in two other important projects: harmonization of chemical occurrence data collection and emerging risks. These are practical examples of how the Forum is contributing to the protection of the European consumer.

To facilitate information sharing and collaboration between national authorities and to coordinate risk communication, national Focal Points will be established in all 27 Member States.
To date we have signed 22 such agreements and I was delighted to co-sign the agreement with Hungary last December. Both parties are looking forward to reaping the benefits of this mutually beneficial cooperation in the coming years. We hope to have all agreements in place by the summer – a mark of the commitment of Member States to strengthening their links with EFSA.

One of the other tools at our disposal is outsourcing: Article 36 of EFSA’s Founding Regulation enables competent organisations designated by Member States to assist us in our activities. And EFSA is making ample use of this valuable capacity; for 2008 a total of 21 calls are planned compared to 12 in 2007 with a total allocated budget of more than €2.5 million, a growth of more than 20% in 2008.

Internally at EFSA, we are constantly reviewing our procedures in order to refine our working methods and deliver the best possible science. In 2008, for example, we have reshaped our governance arrangements, creating two new directorates – Risk Assessment and Scientific Cooperation & Assistance – to enhance our efficiency. In addition, a newly formed Emerging Risks unit will become fully operational this year.
Its remit is to establish the procedures to monitor, collect and analyse information and data that will enable us to identify and prevent emerging risks in relation to food and feed safety.

In parallel, we have increased the efficiency of our recruitment; at the end of March our staff numbers had reached 325, 100 more than at the end of 2006. Between 2006 and 2008, we will have doubled the staff members dedicated to scientific activities and we will further increase this. At the end of this year, 61% of the total staff of EFSA will work in one of the scientific directorates – compared to 51% in 2006 – and 70% of our budget will be allocated to scientific activities.

We are currently in the process of creating two new panels – ANS, dealing with food additives and nutrient sources added to food and CEF, addressing food contact materials, enzymes, flavourings and processing aids. We know from experience that these fields have consistently experienced a high workload as we have already issued more than 270 opinions and assessed more than 1400 applications in this area. The new panels will become operational in July, increasing the expertise available to us and accelerating our operations in this field.

Cooperation with Hungary and conclusion

It is crucial that we have the best expertise available for the new panels and with that in mind I would like to express my sincere gratitude to Árpád Somogyi for his support in the validation of our process for the selection of experts. Of course, Hungary plays an important role in EFSA in many other ways. As Vice-Chair of our Management Board, Diána (Bánáti) makes a crucial and very active contribution to the Authority’s activities. Likewise, Mária’s (Szeitné Szabó) membership of the Advisory Forum is highly valued, as is the contribution of the four Hungarian experts in our Panels and Scientific Committee and their six compatriots on EFSA’s staff. We are delighted with this active participation from your country and we hope and trust that this will be strengthened even further when membership of the EFSA Panels will be renewed next year.

And there are other initiatives underway in which we hope to engage you. In early June, EFSA will launch a database of European experts in the fields within the Authority’s remit. This is a very important tool as it provides ready access for both EFSA and Member States to the available pool of European expertise and enhances transparency in the selection of experts.
It will enable Hungary’s scientists to register their details with us; the online registration process is simple and straightforward.

Building EFSA’s visibility among the scientific community is a priority for us and I would like to bring to your attention that, in cooperation with interested Member States, EFSA offers to run workshops for scientific experts in the field of food safety to discuss the approaches used in carrying out risk assessments and data collection.

In conclusion, I would like to re-emphasise that EFSA is committed to building cooperation with all EU Member States for the benefit of all parties and ultimately for the protection of the European consumer. In parallel with the significant contribution that Hungary makes to EFSA and to European food safety in general, EFSA strives to ensure a safe and healthy food supply for its consumers.

I would like to thank the organisers once again for their invitation, to congratulate the Hungarian Food Safety Office on its fifth anniversary and to wish it every success in its future activities. Thank you for your kind attention.