Food Safety, Animal Health and Consumer Protection - Radenci, Slovenia

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Dear Chair, representative of the EFSA Management Board, dear Milan,
Dear Minister of Agriculture Iztok Jarc,
Dear members of the national Parliament,
Distinguished guests,

Introduction

Thank you to [Milan] for the kind introduction and to the Slovenian Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Food for the invitation to speak at this prestigious conference. It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today in Radenci at the crossroads of Central and South-Eastern Europe and to have the opportunity to address such a wide range of interested parties and stakeholders in the European food chain. This is of course a significant day for both EFSA and Slovenia with the signing of the Focal Point agreement and I am very grateful for the hard work that has been put into reaching this milestone in our relationship.

I had the opportunity earlier to visit the International Agricultural-Food Fair of Gornja Radogna and I would like to congratulate the organisers on the success of this important event in the European food calendar.

As the Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority, I am privileged to lead an organisation that is committed to the protection of health, to a safe and healthy food supply and, to this end, to providing the highest quality scientific advice for decision makers. I would like to share with you some thoughts about the role of EFSA in the European food safety system and the challenges we face in ensuring a safe food supply in Europe. And by “we” I mean all players in the food chain, as each of us has a responsibility in ensuring that the consumer is protected. This collective responsibility is key to ensuring that European food safety remains at the highest level.

Background

To begin with, I would like to turn the clock back a decade or so when Europe was reeling from a number of food scares that undermined consumer confidence in European food and had serious repercussions for the internal market.
The crises associated with BSE and dioxins, among others, represented a watershed in European food safety. As a direct consequence, the European Commission published its “White Paper on Food Safety” in January 2000, a ground-breaking document that set the stage for the reform of European food safety system and introduced an integrated approach to the protection of the food chain, from “farm to fork”, the theme of the International Fair this year. The BSE crisis in particular highlighted the shortcomings in European food safety systems as they were in the 1990s and it is not surprising that animal health represents a major part of EFSA’s portfolio today. EFSA’s Director of Risk Assessment, Riitta Maijala, will elaborate further on our activities in animal health in a later presentation.

In creating EFSA, the European Union put in place an independent body that, through its scientific and communications activities, could strengthen the confidence of consumers. While the Authority is an integral component of the EU food safety system, its independence is critical to the EU overall being able to ensure the safety of its food supply. EFSA is a science-based organisation and its independent advice has been a compelling strength of the food law system since the early 2000s and, over the longer term, will increase the credibility of the EU 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. EFSA’s role is clearly defined as the EU’s risk assessor and a provider of independent scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain.

EFSA’s scientific opinions and advice provide an evidence-based foundation for European policies and legislation and support the European Commission, the European Parliament and Member States in taking effective, appropriate and timely risk management decisions. It also coordinates pan-European networks of scientific excellence, collates and disseminates pan-European food-related data and interfaces with its international counterparts.

Operating with a commitment to openness, independence and transparency, EFSA works in cooperation and dialogue with all players in the food chain.

Integrated approach

EFSA has a broad and integrated remit covering the entire food chain from the field – where we deal with issues such as plant health, animal health and welfare, and pesticides – through to the safety and nutritional aspects of food on the plate. Food safety risks cannot be addressed within isolated boxes as they are often interrelated and complex. One of the key strengths of the Authority is that it brings together a wide range of European expertise that spans the entire length of the food chain. As risk assessments become increasingly complex, it is important that we continue to use the full range of expertise at our disposal in delivering our risk assessments. We will continue to build and develop this integrated approach to enable us to assess and respond to the challenges presented by the evolving policy environment and those presented by climate change, globalisation, new technologies and emerging and re-emerging risks.

Achievements

So how has EFSA contributed to food safety in the EU since its establishment?
To begin with, we have published more than 700 scientific outputs – 201 in 2007 alone – and processed more than 1600 applications. As more and more tasks are allocated to EFSA, we are encouraged by the confidence placed in our risk assessments but mindful of the increase in workload.

And, as you will be aware, we are judged not just on the quantity but also of course on the quality and usability of our outputs for risk managers. In April, we started to implement an internal quality review process for our scientific outcomes. This system comprises self-review – to ensure that the principles of best scientific practice are adhered to – and an internal review by EFSA senior scientific staff not involved in the preparation of the opinion. In 2009, the third component of the quality system – review by independent external scientists – will be introduced.

In addition, we have built strong relationships with Member States and with other international bodies to make effective use of synergies, benefit from their expertise and avoid unnecessary duplication of work.

Risk communication is EFSA’s other core activity. We are tasked to provide consistent, accurate and timely information for risk managers, risk assessment bodies in Member States, stakeholders and ultimately the public at large. Translation of complex technical material into an accessible format requires close cooperation between communications professionals and scientists – a key strength that we have developed in Parma.

As well as enhancing the coherence of risk communications across Europe, EFSA strives to gain insight into consumer perception of risk. Given the diversity of Europe, diversity of diets, of attitude to food, of risk perception, it is challenging to reach the almost 500 million consumers that comprise the EU, one of the key reasons why we focus on cooperation with national food safety authorities: to ensure that messages are culturally appropriate, effective and meaningful.

Cooperation in meeting challenges

The food safety landscape is constantly evolving and EFSA is faced with many challenges in protecting the consumer: an increasingly globalised food supply and the associated risk of foodborne disease, new technologies such as cloning, nanotechnology and GMOs, climate change, shifting socio-demographic patterns and increasing demand for ethically produced foods and sustainable production practices. Associated with these challenges we are faced with an increasing workload, often as a result of changes in legislation.

Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts to meet these challenges and we look to the cooperation of partners and stakeholders to exercise our mandate. In doing so, EFSA has created effective networks comprising more than 1000 scientific experts, 27 national agencies and more than 200 scientific organisations that assist EFSA in its work. Working with the national authorities, as we do with Slovenia, is essential and a top priority in EFSA’s work programme.

We recognise the importance of the effective pooling of European scientific expertise and, to illustrate its commitment to cooperation, a Strategy on Cooperation and Networking was adopted by our Management Board in late 2006, with the first steps in implementation taken last year. We are working with the Member States on key mutually beneficial topics such as folic acid fortification, the safety assessment of botanical preparations, harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies and building a database of chemical occurrence data, just to mention a few.

One of the products of this cooperation has been the publication earlier this year of a concise food consumption database. This valuable tool, publicly accessible on EFSA’s website, will enable the comparability of exposure data across Europe, thereby enhancing exposure assessment, a key step in risk assessment. Access to this database will provide tangible benefits for both EFSA and Member States.

EFSA’s Advisory Forum where the 27 Member States are represented is at the heart of our collaborative approach to risk assessment.

Through the Forum, EFSA has built an effective network of national authorities that advises on our work programme and emerging risks, that can respond during crises and that facilitates the effective sharing of information on food safety and risk assessment. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our Slovenian member of the Forum, Ada (Hocevar Grom), for her valued contribution and support for our activities.

To give further impetus to our collaboration with national authorities, national Focal Points will be established in all 27 Member States, a mark of the commitment of Member States to strengthening their links with EFSA. I am delighted to sign the agreement with Minister Jarc today and we are both looking forward to reaping the rewards of this mutually beneficial cooperation in the coming years.

We use many other cooperation mechanisms, among them the possibility of contracting-out work, in particular preparatory work and data collection, under Article 36 of EFSA’s Founding Regulation. This enables competent organisations designated by Member States to assist us in our activities and we are making ample use of this valuable capacity.
Compared with the 2007 budget, where 8 calls valued at over €1.5 million were launched, in 2008 a total of 20 calls are planned with a total allocated budget of nearly €2.5 million.

Engagement with Stakeholders

In relation to cooperation, we pay very special attention to our stakeholders, i.e. consumer groups, farmers, industry, retailers but also non-governmental organisations, because their input is crucial to our mission and goals. Since its early days, EFSA has opened its doors to stakeholders and a milestone in the Authority’s stakeholder activities was reached with the establishment of the EFSA Stakeholder Consultative Platform in 2005. To ensure that our engagement is meaningful and effective, an external review of the Platform’s activities was carried out in 2007 and the findings will be invaluable in guiding our future policy.

In our daily work, it is extremely important to be aware of and address the concerns and expectations of stakeholders and we attach great priority to meeting stakeholders to do so. We consult with stakeholders through both web-based public consultations and dedicated meetings, for example on animal cloning this year and nutrition and health claims in 2007, and this is crucial for us in maintaining confidence in EFSA’s work.

Cooperation with Slovenia and conclusion

As the signing of the Focal Point agreement here today illustrates, Slovenia is an active and important partner for EFSA in many ways and I would like to express my sincere gratitude to you – and in particular to Minister Jarc and the Ministry of Health – for the excellent cooperation we enjoyed during your recent Presidency. As a member of our Management Board, Milan (Pogačnik) makes a crucial and very active contribution to the Authority’s activities. Likewise, Ada’s (Hocevar Grom) membership of the Advisory Forum is highly valued, as is the contribution of the Slovenian experts in our Scientific Panels and their compatriots on EFSA’s staff. We are delighted with this active participation from your country and we hope and trust that this will be strengthened even further when membership of the EFSA Panels will be renewed next year.

And there are other initiatives underway in which we hope to engage you. In early June, EFSA launched a database of European experts in the fields within the Authority’s remit. This is a very important tool as it provides ready access for both EFSA and Member States to the available pool of European expertise and enhances transparency in the selection of experts.
It will enable Slovenia’s scientists to register their details with us and I encourage them to do so; the online registration process is simple and straightforward.

In conclusion, I would like to re-emphasise that EFSA is committed to building cooperation with Member States and stakeholders for the benefit of all parties and ultimately for the protection of the European consumer. In parallel with the significant contribution that Slovenia makes to EFSA and to European food safety in general, EFSA strives to ensure a safe and healthy food supply for its consumers.

I would like to thank the organisers once again for their invitation, and to wish the conference and the 46th Agricultural-Food Fair every success. Thank you for your kind attention.