Address to the ENVI Committee of the European Parliament, Brussels

7 novembre 2011


Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Brussels, Speaking Notes  

Dear Chair, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

I am very pleased to have this annual opportunity to address the European Parliament. Your support for the work we undertake to protect European citizens has been essential and we are very grateful for it. Throughout the year, we have consulted with you on key issues and your interest in our activities is greatly appreciated. Today, I would like to update you on our work in three specific areas that have a major impact on European public health – foodborne zoonotic diseases, chemicals in food and nutrition – and afterwards I will briefly describe some recent strategic developments at EFSA.

Foodborne zoonotic diseases
The outbreaks of E. coli (STEC) in Germany and France earlier this year left us in no doubt of the importance of controlling zoonotic microorganisms. The tragic outcomes – up to 50 dead, thousands ill and hundreds left permanently disabled – reminded us the damage that foodborne illnesses can cause. Zoonoses diseases are transmitted from animals to humans and encompass some of the most prevalent foodborne microorganisms in Europe such as Salmonella and Campylobacter. They are a significant food threat, with more than 320,000 cases reported in the European Union each year.

Recognising their importance to public health, just last month Vice-President Roth-Behrendt kindly hosted and chaired a seminar here in the Parliament. The seminar was co-organised with the Commission and the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC)  and it was successful in charting the progress Europe has made in controlling some zoonotic diseases and in highlighting what we must do to achieve further success. The reduction by half in human cases of Salmonella in the EU over the five-year period to 2009 is something that we can all be proud of, particularly in light of the trends elsewhere in the world. EFSA’s work has been central to this achievement and we stand ready to continue to support national and European control programmes.

Our livestock populations are the main reservoirs of zoonotic infections and, that is why we received a large mandate from the Commission in 2010 to provide a scientific basis for the modernisation of meat inspection in Europe. We published the first opinion, on swine, in early October and it identifies several biological hazards including Salmonella as priority targets in the inspection of pig-meat in abattoirs. The opinion makes several recommendations on how to improve inspection methods to facilitate the early detection of biological hazards and proposes the introduction of a comprehensive pork carcass safety assurance framework and risk-based sampling strategies. By mid-2013 we will publish six opinions in total and this body of work will be instrumental in better controlling both biological and chemical contaminants in the European meat supply chain.

As you know, EFSA responds to a number of urgent requests from the Commission or Member States every year and the recent STEC outbreaks represented another example of where we put our crisis preparedness procedures into effective use. Since the crisis began to emerge in May/June, we have issued six separate urgent opinions or reports, some jointly with ECDC and other expert bodies in Member States. In addition, on the request of the Commission and the German authorities, an EFSA delegation provided technical assistance in tracing the source of the outbreak. When the later French cluster emerged, we coordinated a taskforce whose report in early July identified the probable link between the outbreaks as a lot of fenugreek seeds imported into Germany from Egypt.

Our upcoming opinion on the risks posed by STEC and other pathogens in seeds and sprouted seeds will provide a scientific basis for preventing such outbreaks in future. In the resolution of this crisis, the investment EFSA has made over the years – with your support – in data analysis and monitoring, statistics, emerging risks, and crisis preparedness procedures enabled Europe to respond effectively. In relation to risk communication, we are finalizing with our Advisory Forum guidelines to foster more coherence in risk communication approaches across the EU – particularly important during crises. In line with the thematic approach described in our Communications Strategy 2010-2013, our website is integrating all of our work on zoonoses in a more meaningful way.

Chemicals in food
While recent Eurobarometer surveys on consumer perception of risk highlight the variations in public concerns across Europe, chemicals in foods and in particular pesticide residues have always featured strongly. EFSA has started the annual collection of contaminant results from Member State food control systems. These include veterinary drug residues, persistent organic pollutants such as dioxins and PCBs, and pesticide residues. We are also working on contaminants such as heavy metals coming from the environment, aflatoxins, as well as furans or acrylamide produced during food processing. To further enhance the reliability of our data, we are working on an approach known as “total diet studies” in collaboration with the WHO and FAO. These studies assess the level of nutrients or contaminants in food as eaten, with the food being prepared before any analysis is performed.

Under legislation enacted in 2008, Member States carry out annual monitoring programmes on pesticide residues and report the results to the European Commission and EFSA. Tomorrow, EFSA will publish the third Annual Report on Pesticide Residues, which gives an overview of residues found in food in the Union during 2009. The findings are encouraging, showing that compliance continues to increase. Residues of more than 800 pesticides were within the recommended limits in almost 98% of the 68,000 sample foods tested.
The report also showed that 61.4% of samples were free of measurable pesticide residues and the number of samples that exceeded the maximum residue level (MRL) fell from 4.4% to 1.4% compared to 2006.

From both a nutritional and a risk assessment perspective, it is absolutely crucial to know what Europeans are eating as well as the composition of their food. In recent years, we have seen significant improvements in the accuracy of the data available to EFSA on the food consumption of adults, children and elderly and the level of chemical contaminants in a large range of foods. This year, EFSA finalised work on the Comprehensive European Food Consumption Database which contains detailed information on the daily food habits of almost 70,000 individuals across Europe with contributions from 22 Member States and collected from 32 different national dietary surveys.

Cardiovascular diseases, cancers, diabetes and chronic respiratory diseases – the main so-called non-communicable diseases – are together responsible for three in five deaths worldwide. These diseases are linked by common risk factors such as poor dietary choices, physical inactivity and other lifestyle factors. Here in Europe the burden is amongst the highest in the world according to the latest WHO Europe statistics. One of the key preventive measures is the provision of information and education on what constitutes a healthy diet. As well as food consumption databases, our work in areas such as the setting of dietary reference values supports policy makers in developing nutrition policies and setting diet-related public health targets. Last July, another important milestone was reached when we published the final series of health claim evaluations, the culmination of more than three years work by EFSA’s Panel on Nutrition, Dietetic Products and Allergies. Supported by EFSA staff, the Panel members have assessed almost three thousand food-related health claims since 2008 to determine whether they are supported by robust science. 

These scientific opinions will be used by the Commission and Member States to decide whether claims can be authorised for use in labelling and advertising. This is a very important body of work for European consumers as it enables them to make more informed choices. This will also help industry in setting future directions for research and innovation.

Closing messages
As I described a year ago in front of this Committee, another key component of our work programme is the evaluation of regulated products such as food and feed additives, packaging materials, flavourings, processing aids, pesticides and GMOs. As well as assessing safety, we are increasingly called upon to assess efficacy or benefit, and environmental impact. While these pre-market assessments are crucial to the protection of consumers, workers and the environment, they also support sustainable innovation in our agri-food sector – a key component of the Europe 2020 strategy.

Recent reorganisation within EFSA recognises the importance of our work on regulated products; for example, the creation of an Applications Desk will greatly facilitate our interaction with applicants and other stakeholders and enhance our efficiency. While we have ring-fenced the resources to deal with the key public health issues, the pre-market assessment of regulated products consumes around 40% of our annual resources. Although the impact of fees for some parts of our work is still under consideration at the Commission, I think it is important to appreciate that, whatever the outcome, support for our core public health remit must be maintained, and indeed strengthened.

We have taken these issues on board in the development of EFSA’s Draft Science Strategy 2012-2016 which is currently under public consultation. It emphasises a risk-based approach to the prioritisation of our work. The paper describes four strategic objectives to realise our future vision for EFSA’s scientific work: further development of our scientific excellence; optimal use of European risk assessment capacity; development and harmonisation of risk assessment methodologies; and strengthening the scientific basis for risk assessment and risk monitoring.

In parallel to the Science Strategy, we have developed a new Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision Making Processes. It builds on existing approaches and tools – and from past experience – with the aim of developing a policy that enhances the independence of our science while preserving access to high-quality scientific expertise. It has also been the subject of extensive consultation including a workshop which we organised here in Brussels last month. The dialogue we had with a large audience was very valuable and the diversity of contributions received will enrich the final policy and implementing rules. In this regard, I would like to thank Kartika Liotard, our liaison MEP, for providing the keynote address of the workshop.

Before I finish, I would like to thank you for your continuous support for our work, and in particular for our budget. I would also like to reiterate that we stand ready to support you in addressing the expectations and concerns of European citizens. I am happy to answer any questions you may have on EFSA’s work.

Thank you for your kind attention.

Published: 8 November 2011