'Challenges for the future and cooperation with member States', Swedish National Food Administration, Uppsala

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to be here with you today in Uppsala and I am very grateful to the Swedish National Food Administration for hosting us and to Katarina and Leif for organising this visit. As you may be aware, we have also visited the Swedish National Veterinary Institute and I am very grateful to Marianne Elvander for organising that visit.

At the outset, I would like to give you an update on EFSA’s activities, if I may. If we cast our minds back, we will remember the 90s as being a difficult period in the history of European food safety, characterised by a series of food scares and, consequently, loss of confidence in the policies and systems designed to protect the consumer.

Out of this, I’m sure you will remember, came the European Commission’s “White Paper on Food Safety” in January 2000.
This far-reaching document, prepared in cooperation with Member States, set the stage for reform, with the ultimate goals of strengthening European food policy and assuring the safety of the food chain, from “field to plate” or from “stable to table”.

Eight years later, we can justifiably claim that the main pillars of that White Paper, which laid down the general principles and requirements of food law and established the European Food Safety Authority, have been put in place, thanks to the efforts of the men and women who have worked to implement this directive.

The new European food safety system has, above all else, delivered one crucial reform: the separation of risk assessment and risk management. EFSA was established in 2002, primarily as an independent source of scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain. As the risk assessment body, EFSA produces scientific opinions and advice that provide an evidence-based foundation for European policies and legislation and we support the European Commission, the European Parliament and Member States in taking effective, appropriate and timely risk management decisions.

With the principles of openness, independence and transparency, EFSA’s ultimate goal is the protection of the European consumer by delivering the best scientific advice at the right time and in dialogue – and this is very important – with all the players in the food and feed chains.

While EFSA has adopted more than 500 opinions since its inception in 2002, quantity – and you are all aware of this – is not the only consideration. It is critical that the Authority’s outputs meet the usability criteria of its “customers” – the Commission and national risk managers among others. To assure the equality of its scientific work, last year EFSA designed and will soon implement a system to objectively assess, both internally and externally, the quality of its scientific outputs.

EFSA tries to leave no stone unturned in ensuring that its founding principles are adhered to; by way of example, in 2007 we reviewed the processes associated with the Declarations of Interest of EFSA staff, scientific experts, Advisory Forum Members and Management Board. To ensure transparency in all our operations, EFSA makes extensive use of its website to provide open access to its publications, mandates, opinions and all kinds of stakeholder activities.

In addition, the meetings of its Management Board are webcast live and the Authority regularly consults the public on issues such as cloning, botanicals and health claims.

Food safety is not, of course, a static paradigm and the landscape in which EFSA operates is constantly evolving. Risks change: new ones emerge and old ones re-emerge or change in nature. As the guardian of European food safety, EFSA has to scan the horizon for new threats to our food supply as well as remaining vigilant to our “older friends”.

Technology advances relentlessly, leading to new food products and production methods. Detection methods become increasingly more sensitive and smaller amounts of contaminants and other substances can be measured. The implications for food safety of the relatively new field of nanotechnology must be assessed; EFSA expects to adopt an opinion on nanoparticles in mid-2008 and we have already collected information from the Member States through the Advisory Forum.

Advances in animal cloning, in particular the use of somatic cell nucleus transfer, have taken up much of our attention in 2007 and, as you may have seen on our website, we have launched a public consultation on a draft opinion.

Scientific research continues to build the food safety knowledge base, meaning that risk assessments have to be regularly re-visited in light of new evidence, as is the case with EFSA’s re-evaluation of food and feed additives permitted in Europe in the past 30 years – a huge task. In 2007, new research was published linking certain food colours with hyperactivity and the AFC Panel has been mandated to assess that work. We expect an opinion on this issue very soon.

Increasing globalization has meant the increased movement of food commodities, increasing the likelihood of foodborne disease. The effects of climate change on agricultural production and the sustainability and environmental impact of food production systems are of major concern. Socio-demographic changes in Europe have changed the traditional diets of many families and the burdens associated with obesity and an aging population are stretching our health resources.

EFSA is increasing – as you are here in Sweden – its nutrition-related activities to support health authorities across Europe in managing the chronic disease burden by, among other things, providing a scientific basis for assessing health claims, facilitating the establishment of nutrient profiles, setting recommended dietary intakes for Europeans, and compiling food consumption databases that identify trends in diet.

In parallel with this, changes in food legislation can have important implications for EFSA, its operations and its resourcing. Enactment of the new legislation on food improving agents, and in particular the safety assessment of enzymes used in food production, will add to the growing challenge represented by pesticides and food and feed additives; in total, approximately 700 food additives, 2800 food flavourings and 2600 substances used as feed additives need evaluation or re-evaluation. This is a huge task.

Authorisations are making significant demands on our resources, with 1000+ applications or renewals submitted in 2007 and a further 1000 claims awaiting assessment in 2008-2009.

And we are proactive in protecting the European food supply, creating a new Emerging Risks unit that will help us to anticipate and prevent threats to the food chain, and launching self-mandates when necessary, such as our assessments of the long-term effects of GMOs on the environment and on their potential allergenicity in man.

All the factors I have mentioned emphasise the fact that the context of EFSA’s work has changed radically since 2002.

Its workload has been multiplied by four since its inception and is expected to double in 2008 alone. Last year, we adopted a record number of opinions, more than 200 in total, in addition to a growing number of other outputs: guidance documents, scientific reports, and statements.

So how are we planning to cope with this increasing workload while continuing to deliver timely, high-quality scientific advice?

Thankfully, we are not alone in our efforts and we look to the cooperation of partners and stakeholders to exercise our mandate. Cooperation with the national agencies is an essential tool and a top priority in EFSA’s work programme. To be able to deliver the best risk assessments for Europe, it is imperative for EFSA to have access to scientific information and data at the national and international level. EFSA recognises the importance of the effective pooling of European scientific expertise and, to illustrate its commitment to cooperation, a formal Strategy on Cooperation and Networking – that was prepared by the Advisory Forum – was adopted by our Management Board in late 2006, with the first steps in implementation taken last year.

EFSA’s Advisory Forum, where we have representatives of 27 national agencies, is at the heart of our collaborative approach to risk assessment. The Forum advises on our work programme and emerging risks and enables the effective sharing of information on food safety and risk assessment. It also forges close links between EFSA and national authorities in Member States. I would like to take the opportunity to thank our Swedish member of the Forum, Leif Busk, for his valued contribution and support for our activities.

Several projects have been identified by the Forum and are now being developed – I would like to illustrate: safety assessment of botanicals, risks and benefits of fortification of food with folic acid, harmonization of chemical occurrence data collection, creation of a database of scientific experts in Europe (that can be used by both EFSA and Member States), food consumption data collection and the harmonisation of risk assessment approaches. These are practical examples of how the Forum is contributing to EFSA’s activities and ultimately to the protection of the European consumer.

To facilitate information sharing and collaboration between national authorities, and to coordinate risk communication, national Focal Points will be established in all 27 Member States by mid-2008; 21 agreements have already been signed. I was delighted to sign the Swedish agreement with Katarina Hörnfeldt-Olson last month and I look forward to what I hope will be a productive and mutually beneficial relationship with the Swedish National Food Administration in the coming years.

Because cooperation is top of EFSA’s agenda, the directorate for Scientific Cooperation and Assistance was established to build scientific cooperation and support our risk assessment activities. The directorate assists our Scientific Panels by providing specific expertise and tools in data collection, exposure, emerging risks, and assessment methodologies. It facilitates the provision of scientific advice and enables us to respond promptly to requests for advice.

One of the other tools at our disposal in managing the workload is outsourcing: Article 36 of EFSA’s founding regulation authorises competent Member State organisations to undertake work on behalf of EFSA. In 2007, a total of 12 Article 36 calls were issued and, in many cases, successful proposals were financially supported by EFSA.
Many more calls are expected in 2008.

At this point, I must emphasise that EFSA depends on more than 700 scientists, and the goodwill of their institutions, to carry out its mission. The members of our Scientific Panels and Committee are selected according to strict procedures and recognised internationally as experts in the very specific fields required. I would like to pay tribute to the many Swedish experts, many in this organisation and in Marianne’s organisation, who contribute to our activities. Thank you very much for your input.

And EFSA is looking outside Europe: for example, in July 2007 we reached a milestone in international cooperation between risk assessors by signing a confidentiality agreement with the FDA. This landmark transatlantic agreement facilitates exchange of information between Europe and the USA and we believe this will greatly enhance the quality of our risk assessments. We are working with the national food safety authorities of Australia, New Zealand and Japan to establish similar agreements.

Communication of scientific information is, of course, EFSA’s other core activity.
The Authority aims to provide consistent, accurate and timely information for risk managers, risk assessment bodies in Member States,
stakeholders and ultimately the public at large. To accurately translate the conclusions of our risk assessments into meaningful communications, close cooperation between communications professionals and scientists is required – a key strength of ours in Parma.

Given the social and cultural diversity of Europe, it is difficult to reach nearly 500 million consumers with a single message, yet another reason for our emphasis on cooperation with national food safety authorities: to ensure that messages are culturally appropriate, effective and meaningful. That is quite a challenge!

In conclusion, EFSA has an important role in European food and feed safety systems, and is a key player in risk assessment and in risk assessment methodologies. It could be called a hub of cooperation on food and feed safety in Europe with growing international connections.
It is scientifically independent and its role is clearly distinguished from that of risk managers. It operates in an open, transparent and accountable manner in cooperation with its partners and stakeholders. EFSA can be regarded as being in its second stage of development – we are a young organisation and only last year celebrated our fifth anniversary.

Its remit and workload have changed radically since its inception and EFSA is adapting its governance to enhance its efficiency and to align its resources with the emerging priorities.

I would like to thank the Swedish Administration once again for its hospitality, to wish you every success in your future activities, in our common activities, and in the development of the Focal Point in Sweden. And I thank everyone for their kind attention.