'Joining forces for safer food in Europe: the food safety system in the EU', Joint event EFSA-ASAE, Lisbon

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

 

Dear President of (ASAE) the Portuguese Economy and Food Safety Standard Agency, Dr Nunes
Dear Portuguese Member of EFSA's Advisory Forum, dear Manuel Barreto
Dear distinguished public

I feel very honoured to be able to address this audience today. I appreciate very much the opportunity that this joint EFSA-ASAE event is offering to EFSA to introduce the work and activities of the Authority.

As the Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority I am privileged to head up an organisation that has as its central role, the assessment of risks in food and feed, animal health and welfare and a growing role in the very important issues of diet, nutrition and health and plant protection, and the communication of its findings.

This year EFSA is 5 years “young”. Since its establishment EFSA has published more than 450 opinions in the area of food and feed safety, animal and plant health and nutrition. The workload is increasing year to year. Not only is the number of questions rising, but also the
complexity of questions and their urgency. In addition, EFSA is expected to embark in new scientific areas in the coming years with new technologies being introduced into the food chain. Risk assessment is EFSA’s core activity. EFSA must uphold the highest scientific standards delivering the best science at the right time and in the most appropriate manner.

EFSA is also a young organisation and we have to continue to build our profile and gain the trust of consumers, and other stakeholders ensuring that we have the highest standards. In EFSA’s Scientific Committees and Panels we have indeed been lucky to be able to select
high quality scientists from across the EU and beyond and I must thank you for enabling so many of your scientists to assist EFSA with its work.

It is not enough for any organisation to state that it has the best standards unless it is willing for its processes and products to be reviewed and assessed. I am confident that EFSA has high standards of science, independence and integrity but we are not complacent and I have
instigated work within the Scientific committee and staff to look at how we review internally and externally our scientific processes and output with the objective of continuous improvement.

EFSA’s functional separation from the EU risk management institutions has been structured to build confidence through independence. But while the independence of our work has to be guarded and managed so that we are free to draw our conclusions on a scientific risk
assessment, EFSA plays an integral part in the EU food law system within which we are accountable for our advice. We are the first step of the process, our opinions are there for the legislators to use. We respond to their needs and much of our work is programmed to assist
their policy programme but crucially our opinions are not influenced by political considerations. Unless the scientific basis for EU food law is trusted, from an untainted and reliable source, free from undue sectoral or political interests, it cannot help risk managers build confidence. It is important that EFSA works closely with risk managers to build mutual respect and ensure a seamless interface and coherence between all parts of the risk analysis process. I must emphasis though that independence does not mean isolation. This issue will be at the heart of the Food Safety Summit that in the context of EFSA ‘s 5th Anniversary we are organizing jointly with the Portuguese Presidency and the European Commission (Brussels, 22nd November).

To be able to deliver the best risk assessments for Europe EFSA has to be plugged in to scientific information and data available at the national and international level. One year ago - Berne, September 2006 - EFSA and the national food agencies who participate in the Advisory Forum of EFSA, signed a Declaration of Intent for further collaboration. This indeed was a tangible example of the great willingness on all sides to work closely together in sharing information and pooling resources. To take these good intentions forward a Strategy on Networking and Scientific Cooperation was agreed which later received the endorsement of the EFSA Management Board in December 2006.

Since then EFSA and the Member States have acted quickly to keep the momentum going and we have formed a joint Steering Group on Cooperation between EFSA staff, members of the EFSA Scientific Committee and Panels, and representative from Member States to
identify key projects for collaboration. Collaborative work under this new strategy is now underway on important projects such as
the risks and benefits of the fortification of food with folic acid, harmonisation of chemical occurrence data collection in food and feed, safety assessment of botanicals and botanical preparations, the risk assessment of nanoparticles, the identification of emerging risks. On
the later, I am pleased that Portugal volunteered to take part in this project and together with other Member States.

EFSA is also working closely with the Member States to form a database of national experts in all the fields covered by EFSA so that we are able to call upon the best available scientists from across Europe on specific scientific issues.

The projects will be taken forward with those Member States that have a particular interest in joint collaboration with EFSA’s Scientific Committee and Panels. Progress reports on many of these projects (so-called “ESCO” projects) will be presented and discussed tomorrow at EFSA ‘s Advisory Forum meeting here in Lisbon.

To build such cooperation and networking with Member States we have already put in place tools for exchanges of data and information between EFSA, our scientific panels and committee and member states. A set further in this direction would be the implementation of the “focal points” in Member States, composed of risk assessors, risk managers, national authorities, research institutes, stakeholders in the field of risk assessments on food and feed safety; animal and plant health; animal welfare and nutrition. The network of focal points will support Members of the Advisory Forum in co-ordinating risk assessment institutes in the Member States and in the preparation and implementation of the Authority’s and national authorities Work Programmes. The focal points would keep EFSA and its Advisory Forum
informed of developments as regards risk assessments and science in their countries as well as on communications within the areas of responsibility. Few Member States – among those Portugal - have already expressed their willingness to sign such an agreement with EFSA and I hope to be able to sign the first “focal point” agreements shortly.

In EFSA we are dedicating considerably amount of resources to strengthen the scientific cooperation and networking with Member States and I have created recently a dedicated Department to Scientific Co-operation and Assistance (the “so-called” SCA Department), that counts among its Units a Unit dedicated to Data collection and another Unit on Emerging risks.

I am convinced that by sharing information and being well informed about each others activities we can move towards a more common understanding of the risks that exist at national and EU level, be able to assist risk managers develop more coherent risk management strategies, avoid duplication of effort in risk assessment and improve the coherence of risk communications across the Community.

Risk assessors have to be proactive and reactive to provide the risk managers with timely information. EFSA recognises that risk managers cannot always wait for the final word as science takes time. While it is important that risk assessors provide the best scientific advice
– it is not acceptable in urgent situations for risk managers to have to unduly delay the development of risk limitation measures because the risk assessors would prefer to await for more scientific evidence to become available allowing a scientific opinion based on a more
comprehensive risk assessment. Therefore, we have put in place simple procedures that will help to be more reactive in times of urgency and ensure that risk managers are able to take actions based on the best available science. The case of Melamine can be taken as an
illustrative and recent example of these situations where risk managers – in this case the European Commission – approached EFSA with an urgent request to provide advice within a very tight deadline (10 days). EFSA considered this issue as a priority and provided timely its
advice to the European Commission so that allowed risk managers to considered it in view of deciding risk management measures.

Close co-operation and exchanges on communications are also crucial between EFSA and national agencies and national agencies among themselves. Communications is a fundamental task of EFSA. Communicating on complex scientific matters is quite a challenge and we are fully aware that there are different perceptions of risk around the EU, and as a European level organisation we are not always the best placed to catch the interest of national media. In this respect EFSA works with those organizations who are in close contact with consumers and thereby can deliver a more meaningful message. We not only communicate out messages directly but also through the national food authorities who know how to craft messages to address national concerns.

In EFSA we are looking at simpler and clear communications. With this purpose, we are looking at increasing our existing practice of notifying national bodies, stakeholders and international partners with information on our key opinions and reports in advance so that they may be prepared to address their own constituencies with accurate information from EFSA. Allow me few lines to illustrate a very recent example of good co-ordination of communication activities between EFSA and its Advisory Forum Members and coherent messages across the EU: a recent UK study on behavioural changes associated with certain food colours. EFSA‘s press statement was pre-notified to the Advisory Forum 48 hours in advance of its release. That allowed national agencies to consider this communication and to adapt it to their constituencies in Member States. Coherence is at the heart of our communication activities.

My ambition is for EFSA - through the activities of its staff, its scientific committee and panels, and most importantly, the close involvement of the EFSA Advisory Forum, the national authorities in the Member States and stakeholders - to become globally recognised as the European reference body on risk assessment on food and feed safety, animal health and welfare, nutrition and plant health. EFSA cannot do this alone and I look forward to working with all of you to attain this ambitious goal.

Muito obrigada.

END