Address to the ENVI Committee of the European Parliament

30 novembre 2010

Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle

Mr Chair, Honourable Members of the European Parliament,

I am always grateful for the opportunity to address the European Parliament and to exchange views with you on the activities of the European Food Safety Authority. Although our founding regulation gives us a strictly scientific remit, we are fully aware that we need to be tuned into the broader societal debates on the food chain so that our advice is comprehensive and relevant for risk managers. This annual exchange of views with Parliament has been very constructive in terms of the strategic development of EFSA and today’s hearing is also important in the context of the renewal of my mandate. Your support has been instrumental in facilitating the important work EFSA undertakes to protect European citizens.

You clearly demonstrated your interest in EFSA’s work in June of this year when a delegation from the ENVI Committee, led by the Chair Jo Leinen, visited our headquarters in Parma. Your visit was very encouraging for EFSA staff and all those who contribute to EFSA’s activities across Europe. I thank you also for your support for our 2011 budget – it is very much appreciated.

Taking stock
In 2010, we have commissioned two independent surveys to measure EFSA’s progress over the past 8 years against some key strategic deliverables. The first one I would like to mention is the Eurobarometer survey on consumers’ perception of food-related risk which we published two weeks ago. The key results indicate that European consumers associate food with taste and pleasure and feel protected by the EU food safety system. In relation to trusted sources of information, scientists rank fourth behind health professionals, family, and consumer organisations and – reassuringly – two-thirds place their trust in the food safety agencies at either the national or European level. EU citizens believe that public authorities do a lot to ensure that food is safe, that they base their decisions on scientific evidence, and that they do a good job on informing about food related risks – a significant improvement on 2005.

The second survey I refer to was completed earlier this year and it assesses how EFSA is perceived and valued among its key stakeholders and partners, including the European institutions, national food safety bodies, national risk managers, stakeholders, scientists and the media. EFSA is regarded as an open and transparent organisation that is producing an impressive volume of high-quality scientific advice in support of decision making. It is seen as an independent organisation that consolidates and leverages pan-European expertise. As well as building synergies with the national food safety agencies, EFSA is recognised as a trusted partner and contributor to the international risk assessment community. The sharp growth in the number of mandates EFSA receives is indicative of the trust that risk managers place in the organisation. Its role in coordinating networks of European experts and its track record in communicating effectively to a wide range of audiences are clearly recognised and appreciated. These are not our words but those of our main stakeholders and partners.

It is also recognised that European risk assessment capacity has increased thanks to the financial support which you and the other EU institutions have endorsed.

The respondents were very clear on one issue, the success of the separation of risk assessment and risk management and the emphasis on science-based legislation – the central pillars of the General Food Law – and I quote: “the respondents would never want to go back to the pre-EFSA period”. However, there is no room for complacency as several areas for improvement were identified – more transparency and openness in the scientific process, and clearer and less technical communication – and we will follow-up on these in 2011 and beyond.

Evolution of EFSA’s work programme
So, looking back at the first 8 years of EFSA’s existence, I believe we can safely say that, in general, the new European food safety system has delivered on the expectations of its founding fathers – and mothers! Europe has made significant progress on key public health issues associated with the food chain such as Salmonella, BSE and chemical contaminants. EFSA’s advice has made a significant contribution to those achievements.

Furthermore, in delivering its mandate, EFSA has adapted to the regulatory changes and needs of risk managers. This has meant that EFSA’s work programme has evolved significantly in its scale and nature.

In purely quantitative terms, our productivity has had to gear up considerably to cope with the increasing demands for advice. By way of comparison, in 2007 we received 220 questions from the Commission; in 2009 that increased to 360 questions and in 2010 to 900. The substantial increase in outputs – over 600 this year – to meet that demand has been achieved through a combination of increased human and financial resources, efficiency gains, the valuable support of scientific experts and, not least, the commitment of EFSA’s talented and dedicated staff.

Regulatory developments since 2002 have demanded a significant increase in the resources we allocate to the evaluation of regulated products (or applications as we say) such as pesticides, food and feed additives, and food contact materials – as well as health claims. When our Founding Regulation was enacted, it would have been difficult to envisage that 8 years later over 70% of our scientific outputs would concern applications or that we would allocate 40% of our resources to this work. In this respect, EFSA’s work programme is becoming very similar to those of agencies such as EMA or ECHA.

The nature of our work has also evolved in response to changes in sectoral legislation and EFSA now assesses not just risks to human and animal or plant health but also to the environment. For example, our environmental risk assessments in areas such as GMOs and pesticides give EFSA an important role in protecting the environment and ensuring the sustainability of the European food chain. In addition, we are increasingly asked to assess not only risks but also efficacy or benefit for health or the environment, such as our work on health claims and pesticides. This provides risk managers with more comprehensive advice on which to base their decisions. We have also invested heavily in data collection to enhance the accuracy of our risk assessments and our contribution to post-authorisation risk monitoring is essential to protect consumers and the environment.

The way forward
The redistribution of resources that we have had to implement in response to the increase in applications means that we have to ask ourselves some important questions. First and foremost, how can we continue to address the major public health risks (chemical and biological contaminants and nutrition-related issues) while simultaneously, with our work on applications, supporting the flagship Europe 2020 strategy of smart and sustainable innovation?

I would like to share with you how we intend to address that dual challenge and I believe we need to take four important steps.

Firstly, the Panel system is valid and it effectively delivers the advice that risk managers require. However, we must ensure that it is sustainable. Due to the increasing number of applications, a significant proportion of experts’ time is devoted to routine evaluations. Moreover, the impact of the current economic climate means that participation in EFSA’s work may become more difficult for national experts. It is important to remember that half of our panel experts currently come from the national risk assessment bodies. Therefore, to make EFSA attractive for leading scientific experts and guarantee the long-term sustainability of the Scientific Panels, we must modernise the role of the Panels. We propose therefore that in future we focus their contribution on where their expertise has the most impact: addressing the more complex scientific and public health issues and developing risk assessment methodologies while continuing to guarantee the quality of EFSA’s scientific outputs.

Secondly, as a result of this change of emphasis in the work of scientific experts, EFSA will need to increase the number of scientific staff responsible for processing application files.

We already apply this model in the pesticides sector in cooperation with the national risk assessment bodies and it is similar to the model used in EMA.

Thirdly, Member States’ contribution is vital if we are to meet EFSA’s demanding workload which from year to year can be both variable and unpredictable. The growing synergy between EFSA and the national scientific organisations is reflected in particular in the value of the contracts and grants that EFSA allocates annually: it has increased from about 1 million Euros in 2007 to 8 million in 2010. We have discussed the future strategy for cooperation on several occasions this year with our Advisory Forum, the Commission and EFSA’s Management Board. We need further substantial involvement of Member States in our work and we propose to implement this by increasing the contribution of the national agencies and national scientific organisations in preparatory work for our scientific outputs. Member States agreed that cooperation will focus on a selected number of national institutions – so-called “centres of excellence” – with a long-term commitment to invest in specific areas of expertise.

This new approach will be mutually beneficial: it will enhance EFSA’s ability to deliver, increase the sense of ownership in EFSA’s work, more effectively leverage risk assessment resources across the EU, and support the national risk assessment capacities of the Member States. However, the level of investment of €8 million needs to grow significantly.

Fourthly, risk communication is an integral part of the risk analysis process, jointly shared between risk assessors and risk managers. It is central to building consumer confidence in our food supply. We have taken several initiatives to measure our effectiveness and to understand evolving perceptions of risk across Europe – I have already mentioned some of these initiatives. In December, we will submit our Communications Strategy 2010-2013 to EFSA’s Management Board. It reflects the new communication realities and is built on the principles of impact, effectiveness, and efficiency. One of the new directions put forward is the implementation of a more thematic approach in our communications activities. Although EFSA will of course continue to publish every output, we will focus our proactive communications on key subjects where we can be more relevant and impactful. Independence is one of those key topics where we intend to apply this approach.

Regulations and resources
If we are to succeed in our objectives, there are steps we can and will take now in EFSA. We have already initiated a review of EFSA’s efficiency, led by external consultants. It will focus on three key areas: human capital management, organisational structure and functioning, and IT governance. As a result, in 2011 EFSA will optimise its strategic planning and budgeting processes, establish a fully integrated performance management system and start to enhance the quality of the service provided to applicants. It will lead to a review of EFSA’s structure to reflect the priorities of the work programme and in particular the increasing number of applications.

Nevertheless, the measures required to meet the increasing expectations on EFSA cannot be implemented without your support. While we understand the difficult economic and budgetary context in which we are operating, the recruitment of additional scientific staff and the further development of scientific cooperation with Member States will require additional resources in 2012 and beyond.

It will also require some legislative changes. EFSA’s legislative framework comprises 38 different regulatory workflows for applications and it is important that this complexity does not cause unnecessary delays for either industry or public bodies. The level of complexity in the food sector is in sharp contrast with that of, for example, the medicines or chemicals (REACH) sectors. We believe it would be greatly beneficial for EFSA’s efficiency to simplify the vertical legislation in line with the Commission initiative for simplified regulatory frameworks in support of Europe 2020.

In conclusion, food safety and nutrition continue to be high on the agenda of European citizens and we want EFSA to be able to continue to support you in meeting their expectations and concerns. Furthermore, the agro-food sector is Europe’s first economic sector and EFSA is committed to ensuring that it also meets the expectations of food chain operators by supporting the smart and sustainable innovation that will drive economic growth.

We are very aware of the current economic difficulties but I believe we have the opportunity to ensure that EFSA can continue to protect public health and the environment while at the same time contributing effectively to the challenges and opportunities of Europe’s innovation strategy.

Thank you for your attention and I am happy to discuss this with you here today.

Published: 30 November 2010