EPP-ED Group in the European Parliament, Study Days, Paris
This speech was originally delivered in French.
Thank you very much for inviting me, for inviting EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, to be part of the programme for these Study Days organised by the European Parliament. It is a most exciting programme. I must congratulate you on having chosen this topic – covering not only the quantitative dimension of food security, which is clearly crucial, but also the safety dimension of food supply at European and world level.
Briefly, EFSA was established by the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers in 2002. It was set up to provide the European institutions and Member States with independent scientific opinions on risks in all the fields which impact directly or indirectly on food. It communicates these opinions to all players involved in the food supply chain, and to the public at large. Its remit is strictly to deliver opinions, not to legislate or inspect. That remains the responsibility of the European Commission, the European Parliament and the Member States.
Today I should like to share with you some of our thoughts on the challenges facing EFSA, facing us all, if we want to ensure safe and healthy food for all.
I would like to structure today’s intervention around four main ideas:
1) There can be no food security without food safety.
2) To guarantee food security, it is vital to follow an integrated ‘farm‑to-fork’ approach.
3) The role of a balanced diet in people’s health has become an issue of growing importance in public-sector policies in Europe.
4) And lastly, the way in which the processes of public-sector decision-making on food are managed must remain the object of close scrutiny.
1- No food security without food safety
Previous speakers have alluded to the challenges of ensuring an adequate supply of food in a context of European and world pressure on food prices.
Food security and food safety are indissolubly linked: where is the sense in ensuring an adequate food supply if the food is unsafe and constitutes a threat to consumer health?
The success of public-sector policies in Europe lies above all in the fact that the common agricultural policy and policy on food security have progressed together, towards the proud achievement they can now boast today: self-sufficiency and, in some areas, an export capacity and an incredible diversity of food and agricultural production, along with one of the world’s highest levels of consumer health protection.
The effort required to increase the level of food supply worldwide must not allow the quality of that food to be compromised. On no account.
2- Food security: the need for an integrated ‘farm to fork’ approach
The many health crises we experienced in Europe during the 1990s, not least that most difficult problem of mad cow disease, taught us many lessons.
Firstly, of course, it is important that the legislation under which EFSA was set up should have a sound scientific base, but it is vital too that these scientific opinions should be independent and be communicated to the general public. Another lesson, less well-known but every bit as important, concerns the concept of the food chain. Everything that happens in the field, on the farm, in the animal, in the plant, in the environment (soil, water) can affect the wholesomeness of what ends up on our plates. This is especially true of modern production methods like those we have in Europe, which use a lot of inputs – pesticides or fertilisers, to name but a few. EFSA’s mandate reflects that approach, and we owe the European legislator a debt of gratitude for it.
This concept of the food chain as an integrated whole remains valid today. I think it is particularly pertinent as we consider the challenges which we will have to face. We discussed those challenges last November, when we celebrated EFSA’s fifth birthday. Let me remind you of some of them:
* The ageing of Europe’s population will have to be taken into account in the assessment and communication of risks.
* Climate change will have an impact on animal and plant health. ‘Blue tongue’, a disease which has spread further north in Europe, is an example of what might happen in the future.
* We also need a better understanding of how food production impacts on the environment, in order to limit its undesirable effects. We are already, today, evaluating the environmental impact of additives used in animal feeds or GMOs. Tomorrow we will need to conduct a more detailed analysis of long-term effects on the environment.
* We will need to extend further our work of analysing the risks and benefits to health and the environment of production methods and new technologies. We have conducted several investigations of this kind in recent years, for example producing opinions on the consumption of fruits and vegetables potentially contaminated by nitrates, but also on consumption of fish from the Baltic.
3- Safe – and healthy – food: the challenges of obesity and excessive weight
The first part of our session looked at hunger and malnutrition. A figure of more than 800 million was mentioned as representing those people in the world who suffer from malnutrition and hunger. By 2015 the World Health Organization (WHO) predicts that more than 700 million people worldwide will be obese or overweight. Already today, 20% of children and adolescents in Europe fall into that category.
Governments and the EU are introducing strategies to counter this scourge, which takes up a growing proportion of public health spending and threatens to reverse all the advances achieved in Europe over the last 50 years in terms of life expectancy and public health and wellbeing.
Our task is to provide Europe’s public policy-makers with scientific opinions as a basis for their nutrition policies, giving information on the importance of food choices and a balanced diet. Our work in this area has steadily increased. I would mention especially our work on food-based dietary guidance or our examination of 1 500 claims of health or nutritional benefits. We have doubled our resources in this area over the past three years. The scientific challenge is considerable. The same applies when it comes to the work of EFSA and the Member States in communicating information, given their duty not only to inform but also to influence dietary behaviour.
4 - Governance
I pointed earlier to the importance of being able to draw on a sound scientific base in managing food-related risks and safeguarding the consumer. This principle is acknowledged not only at European level but also in international law, specifically by the Codex Alimentarius and the World Trade Organization (WTO) agreements.
The process of public policy-making in the EU has seen a radical shift in the past 10 years: I referred earlier to the separation between risk assessment and risk management. The scientific underpinning of European legislation has been very much reinforced by the increasing level of resources devoted to scientific risk assessment. To give a few figures: EFSA has a staff of more than 300 (500 by 2010), and more than half of our people are scientists. Along with the 27 national agencies we form a tight network, and more than 200 scientific organisations in the Member States work with us as part of that network. We have over 1 000 experts in all fields, from countries inside and outside the EU, helping us in our day-to-day work of producing high-calibre scientific opinions. We maintain highly active communication with all those involved in the food chain but also with the public at large. We have also put in place stringent operating rules to guarantee the calibre and independence of our scientific opinions (declarations of interest, internal quality reviews, etc.).
And yet we need to remember that science alone is not enough. As the German sociologist Ulrich Beck says in his book ‘Risk Society’, ‘The recourse to scientific results for the socially binding definition of truth is becoming more and more necessary and at the same time less and less sufficient.’
Once EFSA has delivered its scientific opinions – we have delivered nearly 700 in five years and have dealt with more than 1 300 additives, flavours, packaging materials or GMOs – the public policy-makers (European Commission, European Parliament, governments) take a decision accordingly. They base themselves on the science, but on other considerations too – what the Codex Alimentarius calls ‘other legitimate factors’. These include consumer information, fair trade, ethical and social acceptability, controllability, social or financial impacts, and so on.
I should point out that EFSA has been criticised for things which are not part of its remit: it is not EFSA that authorizes GMOs, allows poultry carcasses to be decontaminated using chlorine washes or authorises animal cloning. That is not to play down the role of science and scientific assessment – absolutely not. We recognise that a sound scientific base is essential in safeguarding consumer health. But we recognise too that risk management means more than just acting on scientific opinions.
Europe can be proud of how far it has come in 50 years: self-sufficiency in food, broad diversity in its agricultural production, one of the world’s highest levels of consumer health protection. It would be a mistake to assume that all this is fixed and immutable. In organising this meeting you have demonstrated your commitment to continued investment in food security and safety, and you can count on ongoing support from the European Food Safety Authority.