Food safety in Europe – status quo and future prospects: Asia Pacific Weeks meeting, Berlin

9 septembre 2011

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Distinguished guests, ladies and gentlemen,

It gives me great pleasure to address this meeting of the Asia Pacific Weeks business and science programme and I would like to thank the organisers for their kind invitation. Since 1997, this event has been instrumental in promoting dialogue and exchange between Europe and the Asia-Pacific region and has successfully stimulated cooperation between both parts of the world with a particular focus on food. The provision of a safe and nutritious food supply is central to public health goals and to meeting the goal of providing the highest level of health protection for our citizens in both the Asia-Pacific and Europe. In addition, the agri-food sector is an essential economic sector and a major contributor to economic wellbeing in terms of both employment and turnover in both regions.

EFSA overview
I would like to remind you briefly of EFSA’s raison d’être. The European Food Safety Authority was established in 2002 as the EU’s independent risk assessment body in direct response to the food crises of the previous decade. I refer in particular to the BSE and dioxin crises which provoked much public concern and damaged consumer confidence in the European food supply. EFSA’s Founding Regulation is framed by the European Commission’s White Paper on Food Safety 2000, a ground-breaking document that introduced a new food safety system for Europe and paved the way for the establishment of the Authority. It emphasised science-based policy and formally organised the separation of risk assessment from risk management. With a dual remit of risk assessment and risk communication, EFSA is mandated to provide the evidence base that enables appropriate measures to be taken to protect consumers or the environment and to communicate on risk to a wide range of target audiences. Our founding legislation emphasises the core values that underpin our work and that derived from the lessons learned from the food crises of the ‘90s: independence in the provision of scientific advice, transparency, responsiveness, and excellence in our science.

EFSA has a broad remit – covering the entire food chain – and to fulfil our mandate, dialogue with all stakeholders in the food chain is essential. With a workforce of over 450 in Parma – 60% of whom are scientists – EFSA forms a close network with the national food safety agencies and annually over 1000 experts from countries inside and outside the EU contribute to the work of our ten Scientific Panels and Scientific Committee. As the recent and tragic E. coli outbreaks in Europe so clearly demonstrated, there is never any room for complacency in relation to food safety, particularly in light of the globalised food supply chain that now exists. In our provision of urgent technical assistance to the European Commission and Member States, EFSA coordinated a taskforce which included the relevant Member State authorities, Commission representatives, and scientists from the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention, the FAO and the WHO. I would like to pay tribute to our colleagues from the BVL (Bundesamt für Verbraucherschutz und Lebensmittelsicherheit) and the BfR (Bundesinstitut für Risikobewertung) for their commitment and cooperation during the German outbreak. Events such as these emphasise that close cooperation with both national and international counterparts is vital in ensuring that we can respond in a coordinated manner to food safety emergencies.

Scientific Cooperation
Under our current operating model, we rely heavily on the availability of expertise from the Member States to generate our scientific advice. For example, more than half of our Panel members come from the national food safety agencies. Recognising the importance of scientific cooperation to the future success of the European food safety system, EFSA’s Management Board adopted a formal strategy in 2006 to provide a framework for the Authority’s activities in this area. It emphasises the importance of making optimal use of European expertise and a subsequent review of the strategy in late 2008 highlighted the progress that we have made and continue to make. This includes: the creation of Focal Points in all Member States; the growth of contracts and grants awarded to scientific institutions in Europe to support our work (from 1 million Euros in 2007 to an anticipated €11 million in 2012); the creation of Member State networks on key topics such as BSE/TSE and nanotechnologies; and the establishment of an expert database now populated with almost 3000 experts from across Europe and beyond. We will continue to build our cooperation with Member States with the focus on building our medium-term planning activities to enable the national agencies identify where they can contribute to EFSA’s work programme as early as possible and maximise synergies.

International Cooperation
Driven by a globalised food chain, climate change, and technological innovation in the food industry, it is increasingly important that EFSA actively participates in international risk assessment forums and can access the data we need for our risk assessments. Framed by our Strategic Approach to International Activities, EFSA has agreements in place with national counterparts in, for example, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, and the USA and we have had a number of fruitful exchanges with other Asian countries and in particular China. EFSA is also an active participant in the key international food safety forums such as Codex Alimentarius where we support the European Commission.

Cooperation on Data Collection
The availability of reliable data is central to EFSA’s work and in particular to our exposure assessments. EFSA works closely with Member States, third countries and international organisations to collect, analyse and distribute data on zoonotic organisms, chemical contaminants and residues, animal health and welfare, food consumption and plant health. In this context, I would again like to pay tribute to the BVL for its important contribution to our work in this area.

EFSA issues a variety of reports, some of which are published annually, for example the Community Zoonoses Report (in collaboration with the European Centre for Disease Control and Prevention) or the Annual Report on Pesticide Residues in Food. Others are produced on an ad hoc basis, on microorganisms and chemical contaminants. This work is crucial in supporting the control measures put in place by Member States and the European Commission to reduce, for example, Salmonella, in which human cases in Europe have fallen for the fifth consecutive year.

With the support of Member States, EFSA has established a Concise European Food Consumption Database, operational since the end of February 2008 and a Comprehensive European Food Consumption Database which was released last year. The latter contains data from the most recent national dietary surveys in Member States at the level of consumption by the individual consumer and has already begun to enhance the accuracy of our exposure assessments. We are currently piloting a project to harmonise data collection on food consumption across Europe, known as EUMenu. Co-ordinated by EFSA, and in close co-operation with Member States, it will allow the collection of comparable food consumption data across the EU.

Although national dietary surveys are already conducted in many European countries, it is not currently possible to carry out EU-wide analysis or country-to-country comparisons on food consumption due to differences in how information is collected. By facilitating more accurate exposure assessment and enabling policy makers to set targets regarding healthy diets, EUMenu will contribute to safer food and healthier diets for European citizens.

Cooperation on Emerging Risks
Europe is the biggest global trader in food products and the openness of the European market leaves us particularly vulnerable to food safety threats. A single food product may contain ingredients from across the globe, many of which may be produced to standards that vary significantly from those used in Europe. We must therefore remain constantly vigilant to threats and if possible predict and intervene before they impact on our food supply. EFSA’s Founding Regulation recognises the importance to public health and the environment of the early identification of risks in the food chain and provides the mandate for our data monitoring and analysis activities.

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. Faced with new and emerging technologies – such as GMOs and nanoscience – legislative changes and increasingly complex risk assessments, 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 which are particularly useful when considering emerging technologies or new legislation such as the Health Claims Regulation. In addition, many of our scientific opinions are open to public consultation before adoption.

Evolving work programme
Since our inception in 2002, our work programme has evolved significantly in both scale and nature. Requests for scientific advice have grown steadily: in 2007 we received 220 questions from the Commission and by 2010 that had increased to 900. Regulatory developments have demanded a significant increase in the resources we allocate to the evaluation of regulated products, such as pesticides, food and feed additives, health claims, GMOs and food contact materials. As well as protecting public health and the consumer, this work is important in promoting sustainable innovation in Europe’s indigenous agri-food sector in line with the EU’s 2020 Strategy.

The progressive rise in chronic, nutrition-related disease has also impacted significantly on the evolution of our work programme. Through our work in evaluating health and nutrition claims on foods, setting dietary reference values for nutrients, and creating pan-European food consumption databases, EFSA makes an important contribution to the development of effective nutrition policies in Europe. Moreover, our risk communication activities, which we carry out in close cooperation with Member States, ensures that European consumers receive consistent, science-based information to help them make informed decisions on diet.

EFSA is increasingly called upon to assess risks to the environment – for example of GMOs – and to assess efficacy or benefit for either public health or the environment, such as our work on pesticides. This work is important from the perspective of the sustainability of the food chain and ensuring that innovation brings real benefits to society.

This evolution of our work programme has prompted us to review our efficiency, working processes and organisational structures. The review process is ongoing and we are confident that it will deliver a more efficient and re-focused organisation that will meet the future expectations of our partners and stakeholders.

In conclusion, EFSA is committed to ensuring that European food policy is underpinned by a robust evidence base and that our consumers are fully protected and informed. I would like to thank the organisers once again for this opportunity to present EFSA’s work and I wish you every success in your deliberations.

Thank you for your kind attention.

 Published: 15 September 2011