Future challenges in Food Safety - Vienna

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Speaking Notes

Dear Chair (Bernhard), distinguished guests,

I would like to thank the Austrian Agency for Health and Food Safety (AGES) and in particular Bernhard Url – a valued member of EFSA’s Management Board – both for co-organising this important event with us and for enabling me to address you today on the issue of future challenges in food safety. Austria continues to be a very active contributor to EFSA and I also would like to thank Roland Grossgut and Johann Steinwider for their valued input to the Advisory Forum and to, for example, the ESCO working group on harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies.

As many of you will be aware, EFSA was created following several far-reaching food safety crises in the 1990s to contribute to the rebuilding of the trust of consumers in the EU food supply, strengthen the overall EU food safety system and, ultimately, to ensure that consumers are protected.
To fulfil this role, the legislators rightly identified the importance of the excellence, independence and quality of the scientific advice underpinning food law, the openness and transparency of the body developing this advice, and the need to communicate, coherently, accurately and in a timely manner. And this is the basis on which we operate. With a staff of 400 in Parma – two-thirds of which are involved in scientific activities – we have built networks of more than 1200 scientific experts, 30 national food safety agencies and 370 national scientific organisations without which we could not achieve our objectives.

Operating environment
As outlined in our Strategic Plan 2009-2013, EFSA operates in a dynamic environment and the policy areas that impact on its work have evolved significantly since its establishment. In developing the Plan, we took into consideration the European Commission’s Future Challenges paper and the strategies of other organisations such as the FAO and WHO. The main drivers of changes identified include climate change, globalisation, innovation and societal change. While recognising that, as a risk assessor the consequences and solutions may differ, I would like to briefly describe the measures we will take to tackle them.

1.Climate change and sustainability
With the drive to ensure global food security, the impact of intensive agricultural practices on soil, water supplies and biodiversity will present complex risk assessment challenges and it is likely that the requirement for environmental risk assessments will grow. We are already beginning to see this in our work and we are building our cooperation in this field with the Commission services – in particular the Joint Research Centre – EU agencies and international organisations.

It is widely accepted that our climate is changing and that the process may accelerate well into the 21st century. Associated with this change, the likelihood of extreme weather events and altered disease and migration patterns will also increase. We can predict that this will impact not just on agricultural production but also on food safety and food security. While the entire food chain is likely to be affected, particular problems may occur in relation to plant health, biohazards, food contaminants, animal health and the use of pesticides.

I would like to illustrate in just two key areas: animal and plant health. Changes in global temperature, water availability and carbon dioxide levels may influence pathogen and vector behaviour, therefore, changes in animal and zoonotic disease distribution can be expected.

Bluetongue in northern Europe has already brought this to our attention with, for example, the first case recorded here in Austria in 2008. The burden of infectious animal diseases could result in changes in veterinary drug usage – an important issue for all of us. Crops may be similarly affected: changes in plant disease patterns, crop yields, pathogen and vector behaviour, soil quality and irrigation patterns are predicted. As a result, it is likely that patterns of pesticide usage will change, further challenging risk assessors.

2. Globalisation
The accelerating global trade in food items has been driven by the cost effectiveness of importing ingredients from lower cost economies, reduced transport costs and consumer demand for year-round access to seasonal foods and international cuisines. As food safety standards differ internationally and inspection of imports is very demanding on resources, this has left the European consumer more vulnerable to exposure to contaminated foods. The advice we delivered last month on the contamination of wild mushrooms with nicotine illustrates the kind of challenge we face with imports. The Rapid Alert System for Foods and Feeds lists more than 7300 notifications for foods imported into the EU in 2007, emphasising the global nature of risks and the need for vigilance and cooperation.

3. Innovation in science and technology
The Lisbon Strategy has identified science and innovation as key drivers of EU economic competitiveness and the food and feed industries are major contributors to that economy. New technologies and innovation will challenge risk assessment bodies in relation to both their scientific and communication activities. For example, new technologies may have an impact on health or the environment, all of which will need to be scientifically assessed. Assessing risks from new technologies can raise questions relating to uncertainty, information gaps and the need to develop comprehensive risk assessments. As risks are often interrelated and complex, it is increasingly important to assess them in an integrated manner. One of the strengths of the Authority is that, through its multidisciplinary Panels and working groups, it brings together a wide range of European expertise that spans the entire length of the food chain. I would like to pay tribute to the experts from Austria working in our Scientific Panels.

As well as presenting new challenges, scientific advances can assist us with our risk assessment work, for example, advances in genomics and systems biology may enable us to make more comprehensive assessments of risks in many areas. Innovation also serves to highlight the importance of openness and transparency in risk assessment and we must ensure that we engage meaningfully with stakeholders.
Earlier this year we issued our first opinion on nanotechnology after first consulting with stakeholders via an online public consultation and publishing a call for scientific data, a practice we intend to continue wherever appropriate in future.

4. Consumer behaviour and perception of risk
Food is not just a scientific issue, it also has social and cultural dimensions. The EU population is characterised by an aging, ethnically diverse and increasingly urbanised population. Lifestyle changes are leading to different food consumption patterns and will pose new challenges to EFSA’s work in the fields of nutrition and dietary exposure. In addition, consumers have growing expectations in relation to aspects of food such as sustainability, ethics and animal welfare and, through increased access to information, are more informed and empowered than ever before.

Eurobarometer surveys – the tool by which the European Commission measures public opinion – have shown us that consumer perception of risk varies widely across Europe. This presents challenges both in terms of understanding those differences and in communicating on risk to the diverse population that comprises the EU.

5. Emerging risks
Because of the uncertainties associated with the drivers of change mentioned above, one of the key areas in which EFSA will contribute to food safety is through the early identification, characterisation and communication of emerging risks. To that end, EFSA’s Emerging Risks Unit is tasked with strengthening EFSA’s activities in areas such as climate change, in collaboration with the European Commission, Member States and international organisations.

Meeting the challenges
It is clear that the evolving food safety environment will pose new challenges for risk assessors and we must continue to develop our strategies and risk assessment methodologies to ensure that they are fit for purpose. It is imperative that the international risk assessment community addresses data and information needs and that any gaps are filled. That is why EFSA is working, for instance, with the European Commission’s Joint Research Centre to be able to utilise its climatic and geographic data. This year, in the context of our cooperation with Member States, we will launch a project aimed at identifying existing data and data gaps in the fields of climate and geography.

Strengthening scientific cooperation
Although EFSA delivers independent scientific advice, it is not isolated.
The key message from this brief outline of the challenges we face is that they can only be met through cooperation and the intelligent use and sharing of resources, data and expertise – particularly important in light of the current global economic situation. Our activities in this field are guided by the Strategy on Networking and Cooperation which was prepared with the Advisory Forum in 2006. The main thrust of the Strategy is to strengthen cooperation with Member States through the Advisory Forum in collaboration with EFSA’s Scientific Committee, both of which are key to the strategic coordination of cooperation. The Strategy identifies four priority areas: the exchange of data and information; sharing risk assessment practices; harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies; and coherence in risk communications.

A recent interim review of the Strategy indicated that significant progress in cooperation has been made at all levels of the organisation (Member State networks, individual organisations in Member States and individual experts in Scientific Panels and Working Groups), particularly in relation to the exchange of information, sharing of workload and coherence in communication. Several dedicated scientific networks have been created or strengthened in the areas of data collection (for example food consumption and chemical occurrence data) and risk assessment (in particular animal health, plant health, GMOs and BSE).
Under Article 36 of its Founding Regulation, competent organisations carry out a variety of scientific tasks for EFSA and the total spent on both Article 36 and procurement activities has increased from €2.9 m in 2007 to €7.5 m in 2009. An updated list of competent organisations with 128 additions was adopted by our Management Board in 2008, further broadening the range of expertise at our disposal. Access to expertise was also enhanced by the launch last year of EFSA’s database of experts which has received more than 1400 applications from across Europe and beyond.

In conclusion, it is evident to all of us that, if we are to meet the objectives we have set ourselves, we must continue to build cooperation. As resources at both the European and national level become increasingly precious, it is imperative that we use those resources wisely, sharing expertise, data and work programmes and avoiding duplication and divergence wherever possible. I would like to thank you for your kind attention and I look forward to the discussion.

Thank you