EFSA: Assessing risks from the field to the plate - Radenci, Slovenia

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Dear Minister of Agriculture, dear Milan, dear Ministers, distinguished guests, colleagues,

1.Introduction

I am very happy to be back again in Radenci on the occasion of the 47th International Agricultural-Food Fair and I thank the Ministry of Agriculture for the kind invitation to address you today. With its important strategic location at the crossroads of Central and Southeast Europe, the Fair has become one of the most important agricultural events in Europe and is clearly going from strength to strength. I am always delighted to visit this region, not just because of the warm welcome EFSA receives here but also because it is an excellent opportunity for EFSA to work with Slovenia and other countries in the region so that together we can continue to strengthen European food safety.

It is appropriate that the theme of today’s meeting is associated with an agricultural and food fair, because, like EFSA’s broad remit, it too encompasses the entire food production chain. EFSA was established as the EU’s independent risk assessment body in 2002, and the legislators recognised the fact that the food chain is a continuum and that food safety issues cannot be tackled in neatly packaged boxes. Rather, the food chain is interconnected and problems must be addressed in an integrated manner by all players along the entire food chain. Each player has a unique responsibility to ensure the wholesomeness of our food supply and to promote consumer confidence in Europe’s food. Although the questions we receive are usually very specific, our mandate obliges us to provide comprehensive scientific overviews. In this regard, I am very happy to be here with a number of my colleagues from EFSA’s scientific units – Plant Health, Pesticides, Zoonoses and Data Collection and Exposure – who will describe their activities later this afternoon.

2.Future challenges in risk assessment and risk communication

As the Minister of Agriculture mentioned earlier, many of the challenges that risk assessors face are complex, either because they are global in nature or because they involve novel and complex technologies where there are significant uncertainties, gaps in our knowledge or lack of data on which to base our science.

2.1Globalised food trade

The EU is the biggest importer and exporter of agricultural products in the world; in 2007 this trade was valued at almost €153 billion. In addition, the EU is the biggest importer of agricultural goods from developing countries. As many imports are derived from countries with very different food safety systems and standards to ours, this very open movement of foods, plants and animals within the EU is challenging to both risk assessors and risk managers. Global trade increases the exposure of the EU to food safety threats and inspection is a resource-heavy activity. The Community’s Rapid Alert System for Foods and Feeds is 30 years old this year and in that time it has documented the many issues raised by foods imported from third countries. In 2007 more than 7300 notifications were reported, continuing the increasing trend observed in recent years. To ensure that the consumer is fully protected, we have to respond rapidly, often within days, to requests for scientific advice. In EFSA we adopted fast-track procedures for this purpose in 2008 and we have put them into practice on several occasions, the most recent being the contamination of wild mushrooms with nicotine.

2.2 Impact of climate change on food safety

The seriousness of the threat from climate change should not be underestimated.

By the end of this century it has been estimated that the global cost will be up to 5% of GDP. The Joint Research Centre has estimated that in Slovenia the average annual temperature has risen by 1.5°C and agricultural crops are flowering 1-2 weeks earlier compared with 30 years ago. The warming of our global climate is unequivocal and urgent action is required.

Last year, EFSA co-organised a symposium on the impact of climate change on food safety with the FAO and WHO to mark World Food Day. It emphasised the potential of climate change to impact upon all stages of the food chain and to adversely affect food safety but also food security and nutrition. To counter this threat, systems for detecting and managing emerging and re-emerging risks are essential; in this regard, EFSA’s Emerging Risk Unit is a vital component and it will deliver its first annual report on emerging food safety risks in the Community in early 2010.

Last month, we launched an Article 36 call for proposals to study the potential impact of climate change on aflatoxin B1 in cereals, an issue identified by the Emerging Risks Unit as a potential cause for concern.

2.3 Science as driver of change

Science does not stand still and our scientists continue to extend the boundaries of our knowledge in all fields of endeavour.

The Lisbon strategy and other policies encourage industry to be innovative and to create tomorrow’s food technologies and food products. For risk assessors, innovation can be a mixed blessing, because it can bring significant challenges not just in risk assessment but also in risk communication. Coupled with that, it can be difficult for both risk assessors and risk managers to communicate scientific uncertainties and assumptions and the benefits and risks of new technologies. Communication is an integral part of EFSA’s mission and our goal is to communicate clearly and consistently.

That is challenging since our audience comprises the citizens of the 27 culturally diverse EU Member States with a combined population of 500 million. That is why it is so critical to work with the risk communicators in the national food safety agencies as they can localise and interpret the information that EFSA issues for their national audiences. New technologies, such as nanoscience, also bring communication challenges and one of the key lessons we have learned is the need to engage stakeholders in consultation. We pursue an active consultation policy through the Stakeholder Consultative Platform – which has representation from all sectors of the food chain including farmers, industry and consumer groups – or through public consultations, and it is a very valuable and informative exercise for us.

2.4 EU consumers: a changing landscape

The socio-demographic profile of the EU is evolving: our citizens are becoming older and more urbanised, birth rates are declining and Europe has a growing immigrant population. The result is that European dietary habits are diversifying. There is increased demand for convenience foods and ethnic foods and for year-round access to seasonal foods.

Alongside this, the information revolution has helped to make consumers more knowledgeable on food and nutrition issues and our citizens are increasingly empowered in relation to their health. And they are concerned about aspects of food production besides safety: animal welfare, sustainability, ethics and environmental impact come under the spotlight and have to be considered in our risk assessments.

Traditional concerns have not gone away either and we remain vigilant to these issues. For example, last month we published the first Annual Report on Pesticide Residues which we hope will form a robust basis for future monitoring programmes in the Community.

3.Cooperation

Having looked at EFSA's broad remit and the complex challenges it face, it is clear that we cannot work in an isolated way. This brings me to the issue of scientific cooperation. In many ways, cooperation is the life-blood of EFSA.

We call on experts from across Europe who, acting in an independent capacity, contribute to our Scientific Panels and Committee in our core business of providing scientific advice to the Commission and the Member States.

I want to pay tribute here today to the selflessness of the 1500 experts who – through our Panels, Working Groups, Task Forces and networks – give their time for the benefit of the European consumer, and to the goodwill of their employers, the national food safety agencies, universities and research institutes. As resources and expertise are finite, it is vital that we dovetail our work programmes with those of the national food safety agencies as closely as possible and that we eliminate any unnecessary duplication or divergence.

Cooperation with Member States at all levels is implicit in EFSA’s operations and the formal structures to implement that cooperation are now well established: the Advisory Forum, the Focal Point network and Article 36 projects. The focus of our attention now is to move cooperation with Member States to the next stage, that of building overall risk assessment capacity within the EU and facilitating the medium-term planning of our joint activities. This will ensure that we are equipped to deliver the scientific advice which will ultimately protect our consumers in future. We are currently finalising an action plan to implement our strategy in this area.

4.Conclusion

We still face many challenges to ensure food safety but do not get me wrong. We are not pessimistic in EFSA, rather we are confident. Europe has built a very strong and soundly-based food safety system. European agriculture and the food sector successfully deliver sufficient quantities of food: diverse and safe food, tasty and nutritious food.

Your important presence here today testifies that food safety is still high on the agenda of all players in the food chain: national food safety agencies, public authorities, farmers, industry and consumer organisations. Therefore, I wish this meeting and this fair continuing success.

Thank you very much for your kind attention.

Published: 31 August 2009