‘Food Safety in Europe: Objectives and Strategy of EFSA’, The European Food Safety Authority: a European and Danish perspective, Copenhagen
Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,
It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today in Copenhagen and I am very grateful to the Technical University of Denmark and to the Danish National Food Institute for hosting and co-organising this seminar with us. I greatly welcome this opportunity to address such a wide representation of interested parties in the food chain.
The central theme of today’s seminar – cooperation – is a critical one because experience tells us that all actors in the food chain must work together to ensure food safety in Europe.
Scientific cooperation has always been a core part of our strategy and objectives and we have been working closely with national authorities – including our hosts – on many issues such as information sharing and risk communication. However, we believe at EFSA that it is more important today than ever before that we continue to build that cooperation to ensure that we can collectively face the challenges we have.
Background of EFSA
To begin with, I would like to briefly give you some background regarding the establishment of EFSA. If we cast our memories back, the 90s were characterised by a series of far-reaching and damaging food scares in Europe and consequently a loss of public confidence in the policies and systems designed to protect the consumer.
As a result, EU legislators put in place a series of directives, beginning with Regulation 178/2002, which laid down the general principles and requirements of food law and established the European Food Safety Authority. EFSA was established specifically as an independent source of scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain, farm to fork, with the ultimate goal of strengthening consumer protection and increasing the credibility of the European food supply both for the internal market and for trading partners.
The new European food safety system has, above all else, delivered one crucial reform: the separation of risk assessment and risk management – similar to the system that exists here in Denmark. As the EU’s risk assessor, EFSA supports the European Commission, European Parliament and Member States in taking effective, appropriate and timely risk management decisions by providing a scientific-based foundation for policies and legislation. Many national agencies were also created around this time and EFSA has a complementary role to them.
How we work
EFSA is a science-based organisation and the quality and transparency of that science is critical. The legislators rightly identified the importance of the excellence, independence and quality of the scientific advice underpinning food law, the openness and transparency of the organization developing this advice. These factors are the building blocks of EFSA which has now matured into an organisation employing over 380 people, 60% of whom have a scientific background. It has built networks comprising 1000 scientific experts, 30 national agencies and 250 national scientific organisations.
We leave no stone unturned in ensuring that the founding principles are adhered to; by way of example, in 2007 we reviewed the processes associated with the Declarations of Interest of EFSA’s scientific experts, Management Board and staff. To ensure transparency in all its operations, EFSA makes extensive use of its website to provide open access to all its outputs: publications, mandates, opinions, and stakeholder activities. The meetings of our Management Board are webcast live and the Authority regularly consults the public on key issues such as cloning and nanotechnology, and more recently on our Strategic Plan for 2009-2013.
Today in EFSA we see an ever increasing need for our scientific advice, with the number of questions rising from 229 in 2003, to over 620 so far in 2008. EFSA has issued more than 1000 scientific outputs since its inception and we strive to ensure that those outputs meet the usability criteria of our “customers” – national risk managers and the Commission. To this end we have put in place a system of quality review, the internal component of which we implemented this year with the external component scheduled for 2009.
It is increasingly important that we continue to build our relationship with Member States at all levels. By sharing information and expertise, we can make effective use of synergies, benefit from the available pool of European expertise and avoid duplication of work and unnecessary divergence of opinion.
Cooperation is emphasised in our Founding Regulation and the Strategy for Networking and Cooperation adopted by our Management Board in December 2006 provides the framework for our activities in this area. That Strategy was prepared by the Advisory Forum and an interim review is currently underway. It identifies four priority areas – exchanging and collecting scientific data and information; sharing risk assessment practices; contributing to the harmonisation of methodologies for risk assessment; and promoting coherence in risk communication. Those priorities are reflected in the initiatives on cooperation we have put in place over the past year or more.
EFSA’s Advisory Forum, which brings together representatives of all 27 national food safety authorities and observers from Norway, Iceland, Switzerland and the European Commission, is central to our activities. Since inception, the Forum has developed into a crucial platform for dialogue and collaboration and it is playing an increasingly active role in our work. It facilitates the exchange of information, better coordination of work programmes, early identification and analysis of emerging risks, increased coherence in scientific risk assessment and communication. Members use the Forum to advise EFSA on scientific matters, provide suggestions for scientific activities and inform national authorities of the suitability of scientific organisations to participate in calls for proposals, the so-called Article 36 calls for proposals.
And proposals are an important mechanism for us in engaging Europe’s scientific experts and in managing our workload. Article 36 of EFSA’s Founding Regulation authorises competent organisations to assist the Authority in its work. In 2006, our Management Board adopted a list of public institutions that qualify for these grants. We issued 12 calls last year and this has been expanded in 2008 with 19 calls and a budget in the region of €2.2 m.
In addition, EFSA contracts-out scientific work under public procurement procedures where necessary. We anticipate that we will have allocated €3 m to science-related procurement activities by the end of 2008. I am happy to announce that we have just signed a cooperation project with Denmark on the analysis of data on antimicrobial resistance in the context of the zoonoses regulation.
Several projects have been identified by the Forum and are now being developed: risks and benefits of fortification of food with folic acid; harmonisation of risk assessment approaches; food consumption data collection; harmonization of chemical occurrence data collection; safety assessment of botanicals; and emerging risks. These are all practical examples of how the Forum is contributing to the protection of the European consumer.
At this stage, I would like to take the opportunity to thank our Danish member of the Forum – Henrik Wegener – for his valued support for our activities – it is very much appreciated.
EFSA’s activities in the area of cooperation received added impetus by the creation of the Focal Points over the past 12 months. These interfaces, nominated by Member States, form an important bridge between EFSA and the national food safety authorities, research institutes and national stakeholders.
With the key objective of supporting the Advisory Forum Member, their top priorities are information exchange on scientific issues and risk communication. The Focal Points are helping us to disseminate information on our activities in the Member States and also to seek the views and inputs of the Member States and the national stakeholders on our work.
In this regard, I would like to thank Arne Büchert for his valued contribution to our Focal Point activities. A significant milestone in cooperation and networking was reached when the first meeting of the Focal Points took place in Parma in March this year and the constructive discussions at the three meetings held to date have been very encouraging. Today’s meeting reflects the success of the cooperative approach between EFSA and national agencies and the importance of the role of Focal Points.
The Focal Points also have an important role in promoting EFSA’s Expert Database which was launched in June of this year. This valuable tool will facilitate access to the best available scientific expertise in Europe for both EFSA and Member States, accelerating the scientific process and enhancing transparency in the Authority’s procedures for selection of experts. Over 1000 experts from 40 countries have already sent us their applications.
The Focal Points are helping to raise awareness of the database in their countries and encouraging their colleagues to join it. In this regard, I strongly encourage Denmark’s scientists to register their details with us.
To reflect the emphasis we place on cooperation, in 2008 we created a new Directorate – Scientific Cooperation & Assistance – with the remit of building cooperation and supporting our risk assessment activities. It specifically provides expertise in data collection, exposure assessment, emerging risk and assessment methodologies and more generally, enables us to respond promptly to requests for advice. EFSA’s Director of Scientific Cooperation & Assistance, Hubert Deluyker, will describe the activities of the directorate in more detail later on this morning.
Challenges facing EFSA and why cooperation is critical
The challenges that risk assessors and managers face, today and in the future, focus our attention even further on the need for effective cooperation. Food security has jumped to the top of the global agenda and demand for food is expected to increase by 50% by 2030.
In the drive to increase food supply, we must not lose sight of the fact that there can be no food security without food safety.
The European food supply has become increasingly globalised and, as a result, the food products that reach our plates are travelling greater distances and are crossing more and more national boundaries. As the largest importer of food in the world, the potential for new or re-emerging risks to the European food supply is great and we must remain vigilant to ensure that the public is protected from these new risks as well as preventing established threats from re-entering into the EU.
Likewise, climate change is a growing threat and the appearance, for example, of Bluetongue in Denmark is a harbinger of what we might expect in the future. Like foodborne disease, climate change has no respect for national borders and cooperation on a global scale is needed to secure the safety of our food supply.
That is why we believe at EFSA that our cooperation activities extend beyond Europe.
In 2007, we signed a landmark confidentiality agreement with the FDA on information sharing and negotiations with other national authorities are ongoing. In addition, EFSA works closely with relevant international organisations – such as the WHO, FAO and OIE – as well as other European agencies – such as EMEA, ECDC and ECHA. Last week, we signed an agreement on cooperation with the Joint Research Centre of the European Commission which will help to keep EFSA’s risk assessment at the forefront of science.
With increasing innovation being used in the food and feed supply, science will play a crucial role in assessing any associated risks. New technologies used to produce food and feeds may have an impact on health or the environment, all of which will need to be scientifically assessed. We will need to be able to assess and compare risks in an integrated manner, and consider any benefits to health or the environment, so that risk managers have a comprehensive and accurate overview on which to take action.
New technologies also bring challenges in communication. Translation of complex scientific issues into accessible formats for the almost 500 million diverse citizens that make up the EU can be very challenging.
It is important to communicate in an understandable manner on the scientific issues underpinning risk management actions so that the basis of measures are understood.
With the Commission, EFSA carried out a Eurobarometer survey in 2006 on the perception of risks in food and we have plans to do further work on this in 2009 and in 2010. Given the culturally 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.
The Advisory Forum Communications Working Group plays an important role here, working with the communications departments of the national food safety agencies. I would like to take the opportunity to thank the Danish representative on the working group, Heidi Kornholt, for her valued contribution to its activities.
In conclusion, cooperation is a top priority in EFSA’s work programme and the progress made thus far must be built on. We recognise the importance of the effective pooling of European scientific expertise and strive to ensure that the experts in our panels, working groups and Scientific Committee are fully supported and that their contribution to the protection of public health is recognised and acknowledged.
EFSA enjoys a very active participation from Denmark and I would like to express my gratitude to your scientists who participate in our Panels, working groups and other activities and in particular to Peter Gæmelke, a valued member of EFSA’s Management Board. I hope that Denmark’s representation will be further enhanced next year when membership of our Scientific Panels will be renewed. We recently launched an online call on the EFSA website to renew Panel membership and it is open until January 7 2009.
And finally I would like to thank our hosts and co-organisers once again for this opportunity to address you and I look forward to what I’m sure will be a very stimulating work today.
Thank you very much for your kind attention.