Europeans enjoy among the highest standards of food safety in the world, and together we will preserve and build on that proud record. That was the message with which the European Food Safety Authority’s Executive Director closed last week’s successful joint conference with the European Commission’s Directorate General for Health and Consumers (DG SANCO) in Parma.
“We have heard many different voices at this meeting and it is important that we continue to improve that dialogue. Most importantly, today we are agreed that we need a stronger EFSA and a stronger risk assessment community in Europe,” Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle said.
She was speaking at the end of a meeting attended by representatives of the European Commission, the European Parliament, NGOs and industry bodies. The event was the culmination of a number of activities EFSA has held to mark the 10th anniversary of the establishment of both the Authority and the General Food Law in 2002.
The conference “Ready for the Challenges of Tomorrow” gave EFSA’s key partners and stakeholders an opportunity to reflect on the Authority’s record over the first 10 years of its existence and to discuss the way forward.
In an introductory address, Ladislav Miko, deputy director general for the Food Chain at DG SANCO, praised the work of the Authority. “EFSA’s cluster of scientific knowledge is without parallel in the world and the Authority is a crucial partner for the Commission,” he said. “Its work impacts on the daily lives of European citizens.”
Asked what they regarded as EFSA’s main achievements, panellists and delegates came up with a wide-ranging list. The Authority had:
• “Saved years”, making food safer sooner.
• Strengthened the EU’s ability to deal with food crises swiftly and effectively.
• Increased cooperation with, and among, Member States.
• Established a culture of trust between risk assessors and risk managers in support of science-based policy-making.
Delegates also looked at the challenges ahead and, picking up a theme from last week’s EFSA Scientific Conference, discussed the continuing importance of dialogue with risk managers and stakeholders.
Other future challenges that were identified included:
• How, in times of austerity, to ensure the Authority receives sufficient funding to carry out its tasks.
• A need to better understand the public’s perception of risk and make communications more accessible, particularly given the rise of social media and “viral” web stories.
• The importance of ensuring continued access to the best scientific experts and building risk assessment capacity in the EU.
A second session on the role of science in policy-making was introduced by Marit Paulsen, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, who made a plea for politicians to take a “helicopter view” and look at public health holistically. “There is a great need for more politicians to listen to science. We cannot build a safe, sustainable food chain with short-term thinking,” she said, adding that “scientists, politicians and citizens will make the future together”.
The session then focused on questions such as “Can we trust the science behind food safety decisions?” and “Is science sometimes blamed for problems that are not related to science but to politics and economics?” There was also discussion on the role of NGOs, and the need to ensure that political questions regarding policy are directed to the appropriate parties – risk managers rather than assessors.
In a wide-ranging debate, a number of speakers insisted that the rigour of the scientific method was the greatest defence when concerns are raised about the source and impartiality of data and research.
Professor Anthony Hardy, Chair of EFSA’s Scientific Committee, said: “It doesn’t matter who generates scientific evidence as long as it stands up to examination and meets accepted scientific criteria.” David Byrne, a former EU Commissioner for Health, added: “Science is the lifeblood of risk assessment. If the scientific method is sound the outcome is trusted.”
José Bové, Vice-Chair of the European Parliament’s Agriculture and Rural Development Committee, agreed. “We need EFSA, in fact we need a stronger EFSA. But EFSA also needs critical friends,” he said. “EFSA can strengthen the dialogue and take into account constructive criticism and requests formulated by NGOs.”
Ms Geslain-Lanéelle said in her concluding remarks that science is always evolving and EFSA has to continue to support risk managers in setting the right agenda to protect consumers. The Authority is looking forward to working with all its partners – in Europe and beyond – to develop together the way ahead, she added.