"Engaging Stakeholders: the EFSA Perspective", Fifth Ministerial Conference on Environment and Health, Parma

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Dear Ministers, Chairs, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address the conference and I would like to thank the WHO, and in particular Zsuzsanna Jakab, for the opportunity to do so. The European Food Safety Authority, which has its headquarters in this beautiful food valley, Parma, was established by European legislators in 2002 as the EU’s independent risk assessment body for food and feed safety. Through the provision of scientific advice and risk communication, EFSA provides the evidence base that enables the European institutions and national governments to take appropriate measures to protect public health and the environment. EFSA’s Founding Regulation emphasises science-based policy and the separation of risk assessment from risk management.

With a staff of over 400, EFSA forms a close network with the national food safety agencies, and more than 350 scientific organisations in the Member States work with us as part of that network. Annually, over 1500 experts from countries inside and outside the EU contribute to our core mandate of providing scientific advice. We have a broad remit – field to plate or farm to fork – and to fulfil our mandate we have built dialogue with all actors and stakeholders in the food chain.

Independence is one of our core values and we leave no stone unturned to protect it. But the independence of our science does not imply isolation. Far from it; as the organisation evolves, it is becoming more apparent that one of our key roles is as coordinator of networks of scientific excellence and of stakeholders in the food chain.

Challenged by issues such as globalisation, new technologies, climate change and shifting socio-demographic patterns, risk assessment is growing in complexity, and scientific uncertainties have to be addressed more frequently.

Furthermore, the sustainability of food production practices is an important concern going forward and, as well as assessing risks to consumers and agricultural workers, there is an increasing need for EFSA to include environmental risk assessments in its work, particularly in fields such as GMOs and pesticides.

EFSA’s risk assessments are carried out by its ten Scientific Panels, each covering a discrete aspect of food safety, and Scientific Committee. Although the questions we receive are quite specific, we are increasingly aware of the need to provide comprehensive responses using the full range of expertise at our disposal. This “integrated approach” provides risk managers with a comprehensive overview of issues and where appropriate an assessment of benefits or efficacy as well as risks.

Meeting the challenges
We understand that we cannot face these global issues on our own which is why we are so committed to cooperation. Our close cooperation with the national food safety agencies, partner EU institutions, international counterparts and other EU agencies is vital in ensuring that we can respond in a coordinated manner to food safety alerts.

More than 350 scientific institutions across Europe “lend” us their experts – 1500 annually – for a significant period of time each year to enable us to deliver our mandate. That expertise is precious and much in demand and it is vitally important that Europe not only maintains but builds its risk assessment capacity going forward so that we can continue to protect public health and the environment. It is also critical that Europe continues to invest in research so that industry can innovate and remain competitive and we can continue to improve living standards for all. In this respect, EFSA has an important dialogue with the Commission’s DG Research to ensure that Member State risk assessment requirements are fully considered in Europe’s research spending.

In keeping with our core values of transparency and openness, ongoing dialogue with stakeholder organisations with a legitimate interest in the area of food and feed safety is of primary importance to EFSA. As we grapple with complex technologies – such as GMOs and nanoscience – and new legislation, there is a growing need to keep stakeholders informed of our activities and to exchange views with them.

Our dialogue with stakeholders can provide access to valuable data in relation to, for example, emerging risks and to that end we have recently established a Stakeholder Consultative Group on Emerging Risks. EFSA’s Stakeholder Consultative Platform is a key forum for engaging civil society in EFSA’s activities; it includes European-level representation from primary producers, food manufacturers, processors, retailers, consumer groups and NGOs. We have other mechanisms for engaging stakeholders such as technical meetings, colloquia, briefings and symposia and we regularly use those, particularly in areas where we are providing advice on emerging technologies or in response to new legislation. In addition, many of our scientific opinions are open to public consultation before adoption.

Data management
The sharing of data is pivotal to our efforts in cooperation and a major part of EFSA’s work programme. In 2009, we issued nine data collection reports on key topics for the European consumer such as zoonotic diseases and pesticide residues in food. Access to and analysis of data is also an important element in the identification of emerging risks.

We have recently developed a proposal for the establishment of a standardised EU-wide food consumption database – a first for the Union – to enhance the accuracy of our exposure assessments. This widely-welcomed project, which we have called EUMenu, will require inputs from all Member States and will deliver tangible benefits, not just for risk assessors, but also for the nutrition research community and public health policy makers.

EFSA is mandated to communicate clearly and coherently on risks in the food and feed chain to interested parties, including the general public, in close cooperation with Member States and the Commission. Communicating on complex scientific issues or on the risks and benefits of new technologies is always challenging as frequently there are areas of scientific uncertainty that need to be addressed. Eurobarometer surveys, the tool by which the European Commission measures public opinion, reveal the diversity in consumer perceptions of risk which we must take into consideration. In 2010, we will carry out another Eurobarometer survey of risk perception in Europe to update and inform our communication practices.

In conclusion, EFSA is committed to providing independent scientific advice to support policy makers and to playing its role in ensuring that Europe’s food, both for domestic use and export, is safe, healthy and produced in a sustainable manner. We are increasingly attentive to our international role and the need to engage all actors in the food chain in protecting public health. That is why we welcome the importance to engage in dialogue with you in the context of this important conference.

Thank you for your kind attention.