Address to the FSAI Tenth Anniversary Conference: The Evolution of Food Safety: 1999-2009, Dublin

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle 

Dear Minister, distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It is very nice to be here among friends with whom I have the pleasure of working on both a national and international level. I am very grateful for the opportunity to address you in Dublin this morning and to celebrate with you this important date in the history of the Food Safety Authority of Ireland. To begin with I would like to congratulate everyone involved in the FSAI, in particular Alan Reilly and his staff, on its considerable achievements since 1999. We work closely with you on a regular basis and the experience is always highly productive and positive.

In relation to the impressive list of speakers you have assembled for this event, I must say that it is very stimulating – as well as challenging – to address many of the architects of the new European food safety model which was outlined in the White Paper on Food Safety in January 2000. This conference provides a valuable opportunity to, on the one hand, take stock of progress and, on the other, to consider what the future may hold.

I would like to take this opportunity pay tribute to the vision of David Byrne, the founding father of the new food safety system of which EFSA is an integral part. By strengthening European risk assessment capacity, improving responsiveness and transparency in the risk assessment process, and promoting science-based regulations, we can say with confidence that the new model is successful and that the European consumer benefits from it. I wish to reassure you David that EFSA makes full use of its Founding Regulation including on those occasions where we have minority opinions. I also wish to thank the Director-General Health and Consumers, Robert Madelin, for working closely with us to make sure that the new model works and for his constant support for EFSA.

Irish contribution to EFSA
Compared with both the FSAI and DG SANCO, EFSA is of course only a younger sibling! Since EFSA was established as the EU’s independent risk assessor for food and feed safety in 2002, Irish scientists have made a significant contribution to its activities. At present we are delighted and honoured to have two Panel Chairs from Ireland and I am very grateful for their hard work and enthusiasm. We are very privileged to have one of them - Prof. Dan Collins Chair of the Panel on Biological Hazards - on tomorrow’s programme. As I speak, our other Irish Panel Chair, Prof. Albert Flynn of the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies, is busy with a plenary meeting in Parma - a very practical demonstration of our cooperation I’m sure you will agree! In total, there are 7 scientific experts from Ireland on our Panels including Dr. Iona Pratt who is Vice-Chair of the Panel on Food Additives and Nutrient Sources. Many Irish experts are with us since inception and are now on their third mandate - a testimony, I believe, to their commitment to our work. There are also more than 30 Irish experts registered on the EFSA database of experts which we call upon on an ad hoc basis to support our work. On behalf of EFSA, I would like to thank each and every one of you for the support you provide to EFSA - your contribution is greatly appreciated. I would also like to thank the FSAI and other Irish organisations that facilitate their staff’s participation in our work.

I note with interest the debate which has been organised for tomorrow afternoon and among the list of participants is Prof. Patrick Wall, the first Chief Executive of the FSAI. Patrick has also made an enormous contribution to EFSA as a member of the Management Board and as Chair of the Board for 2 years. I wish to thank you Patrick and to pay tribute to the expertise and experience you brought to the Authority during its early years.

EFSA was established in response to the damaging food safety crises of the ‘90s to contribute to the rebuilding of the trust of consumers and trading partners in the EU food supply and to strengthen the overall EU food safety system. The legislators rightly identified the importance of the excellence, independence and timeliness of the scientific advice underpinning food law, the openness and transparency of the body delivering this advice, and the need to communicate effectively. And this is the basis on which we operate in EFSA.

With a staff of 450 in Parma – two-thirds of which are involved in scientific activities – we have built networks of more than 1500 scientific experts, 30 national food safety agencies and over 300 national scientific organisations without which we could not achieve our objectives.

As a mature organisation, the demands on EFSA are growing. By way of illustration, in 2008 we issued almost 500 scientific outputs whereas this year that number is expected to jump to around 1000. That level of productivity is essential if we are to meet the demand for advice we are experiencing. Much of that increased demand is due to applications for authorisation, an activity bound by legal deadlines which currently requires 35% of our resources. I am sure you will have noted that earlier this month, we issued the first series of opinions on health claims - 94 opinions on 523 claims - out of an overall total of 4000 claims we must assess. To manage the workload, we maintain a close dialogue with risk managers, and in particular with DG SANCO, so that we can get agreement on deadlines and targets.

In the drive for delivery, we have not forgotten that quality and timeliness are also crucial for the credibility of EFSA. 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 put those fast-track procedures into practice on a number of occasions, particularly in 2008, including late last year here in Ireland with the dioxins in pigmeat incident. It is worthwhile reflecting on the manner in which the Irish and European level risk assessment functioned during that incident. Compared with previous similar events, what comes through very clearly is that the prompt actions of the FSAI, its willingness to share information and data at an early stage, and its overall spirit of cooperation, particularly with EFSA, were central to the successful resolution of the problem across Ireland and Europe as a whole. This reflects well on the development of European food safety over the past decade.

Member States
The spirit of cooperation that characterises our relationship with the national food safety agencies is in many ways the lifeblood of EFSA. Without a close relationship with the Member States, we would simply be unable to exercise our mandate. EFSA’s Founding Regulation provides the formal basis for our cooperation activities.

In particular it lays out the activities of the Advisory Forum which is the mechanism that connects EFSA with the national food safety authorities of all 27 Member States. For us it is a crucial platform that facilitates information exchange, coherent communication, and the coordination of work programmes and networks of expertise. I would like to sincerely thank Ireland’s representatives on the Advisory Forum, Alan Reilly and Raymond Ellard, for supporting its work. I would also like to thank Alan in particular for chairing the Working Group on Folic Acid whose recent report will inform our deliberations on the risk/benefit analysis of the fortification of food with folic acid.

Communication to the diverse population of almost 500 million that comprises the EU is challenging and requires that we work closely with communication specialists in the national agencies. Through the Advisory Forum Working Group on Communications, we have built a more collaborative and informed approach to risk communication and I would like to thank the Irish representative, Edel Conway, for her contribution to this process. I must also mention the national Focal Point network for which the FSAI is Ireland’s representative.

These “ambassadors” of EFSA were established to support the activities of the Advisory Forum and since beginning operations in 2007 their top priorities are scientific information exchange and risk communication.

In general, while we have made significant progress in working with Member States, we have still some way to go - 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.

Article 36
Another important mechanism by which we engage Europe’s scientists is through Article 36 of our Founding Regulation under which competent organisations can assist EFSA in its work. The Article 36 organisations, of which 16 are Irish, carry out a variety of scientific tasks, in particular preparatory work for opinions and data collection, which are funded through grants. In 2009 we have funded projects in Member State institutions to the tune of over 7 million Euros and, as well as facilitating our work, they also help to build and strengthen national risk assessment capacity.

Today and tomorrow this conference will rightly give the floor to key stakeholders in the food chain. At EFSA, we engage stakeholders through a number of mechanisms but principally through the Stakeholder Consultative Platform which has recently been renewed. We also consult the public on many key issues, such as nanotechnology, animal cloning and GMOs, and their inputs are taken into consideration when finalising our scientific advice. In addition, EFSA organises conferences and technical meetings to address specific stakeholder issues.

International perspective
EFSA’s Strategic Plan for 2009-2013 outlines the operating environment both for the Authority and food safety in general in the short- to medium-term. It analyses the drivers of change and identifies the challenges we have to collectively face going forward. Many of those challenges are global in nature and will require global action. Climate change, the globalised trade in food products, technological innovation, the ageing population: all will pose specific challenges to food safety, indeed many are already doing so.

For instance, climate change may influence pest distribution and disease vector patterns across Europe: the movement of Bluetongue into northern Europe is but one example of what we may experience in the future. The open movement of food products, plants and animals from around the world in the EU market makes us vulnerable to food-related threats. Therefore, we must remain vigilant, respond rapidly when necessary, and enhance our foresight activities so that we can identify emerging or re-emerging risks at an early stage before they impact upon our food supply. At EFSA we are very aware of these issues and have built mechanisms to address them into our work programmes to ensure that we are not found wanting. For instance, our Emerging Risks Unit will deliver its first annual report on emerging food safety risks in Europe in early 2010 and we hope that it will provide a robust scientific basis for future actions.

Just as the FSAI acknowledged the importance of an international perspective when they organised today’s programme, we also recognise that to be effective in the global village we must be connected to the international risk assessment community. This is reflected in our Strategic Approach to International Activities which our Management Board adopted earlier this year and which we are now putting into action.
It will ensure that we are contributing to developments in international risk assessment activities and have access to international data and information. We are already working with for example the USDA and next month we will host a WHO delegation, led by Jørgen Schlundt, to foster cooperation.

To conclude, I congratulate the FSAI on its achievements over the past 10 years and I wish you every success for the next 10. We look forward to working closely with you and I hope that this conference proves to be a successful launch-pad for your future work.

Go raibh míle maith agaibh agus lá breithe shona!

[Thank you and happy birthday!]

Published: 15 October 2009