EFSA's broad mandate provides open shop for scientific risk assessment, says director

July 14, 2003

Brussels, 11 Jul 2003

EFSA, the European Food Safety Authority, has now put in place the cornerstones of its outfit, and has issued its very first opinion, said executive director of EFSA, Geoffrey Podger, in an interview with CORDIS News.

EFSA is an independent authority responsible for providing impartial scientific advice on all matters with a direct or indirect impact on food safety. Since its establishment in February 2002, four major steps have been undertaken to make the authority operational. These include the establishment of a management board, scientific panels and advisory forum, as well as the appointment of an executive director.

Commenting on the impetus for the establishment of EFSA, Mr Podger explained that it was part of a general Europe-wide movement to establish food agencies in response to emerging food risks: 'It all goes back to the history of BSE [bovine spongiform encephalitis], when it was felt quite strongly that those that were managing the situation were over influenced by industry considerations, and that the public did not have sufficient independent sources of advice to challenge what risk managers were doing. This happened in a lot of countries, including my own, the UK. I think the same phenomena was felt at a European level - that people actually wanted to separate the so called risk assessors from the risk managers.'

Providing scientific advice on matters of food safety to the Commission was previously the job of the Scientific Steering Committee (SSC). But, as Mr Podger pointed out, EFSA has a much broader mandate. 'EFSA does not just support the Commission, important as that function is. The Member States, as well as the European Parliament can ask EFSA questions. But most importantly of all, EFSA can ask EFSA questions. This enables us to plug the gaps and make sure that the questions that need to be asked are asked. [...] We are actually taking some time for ourselves to look at issues that we think matter,' he said.

The ability to self task and freely investigate emerging issues is crucial to EFSA's working relationship with institutions like the Commission, and in particular the Research Directorate General, said Mr Podger. 'I think that we have a natural and complimentary role to play here because what we do inevitably helps identify topics which are suitable for research.'

Increasing its tasks also means increasing its resources for EFSA. 'The steering groups were very badly supported in terms of staff. We are trying to have more staff - about 200 to 300 by 2005 - so that they can actually concentrate on making their expertise available. That in itself would help remedy one of the problems of the previous committee system which was that opinions often took a very long time to appear. [This] was not always extricable by the need for scientific debate,' said Mr Podger, adding that having sufficient time is however crucial when trying to identify emerging risks before they happen.

Indeed, setting realistic time frames and then sticking to them is crucial, believes Mr Podger, to EFSA's goals of transparency, accountability and stakeholder involvement. 'There is genuine involvement of the stakeholder in risk assessment [...]. This is quite a marked difference with the previous system which was in many ways a closed shop because the resources were not there to do any more,' he said.

Mr Podger told CORDIS News that a conference, to be held in October with consumer and industry representatives, will look at these issues more closely. 'One of the issues we will look at is how we can open up the process of risk assessment. One approach is to hold hearings while the work is still being done so that people who want to make cases can do so.' Another possible approach would be to circulate opinions in draft, meaning that people have the opportunity to correct any misunderstandings and to make any last minute interventions, he continued.

However, in terms of communicating with the European public on a one-to-one basis, Mr Podger believes that Member State bodies will still be the first port of call: 'If there is a real food safety issue, people tend to go to the body responsible in their country. Also, food communication in particular is very culturally sensitive: Issues like contaminants which cause a lot of difficulty in Germany, because people are very concerned there, would probably not cause the same degree of difficulty in the Mediterranean at all,' he said, noting that EFSA's role will be to assist Member States through its advisory forum. 'But the actual communication needs to be done by individual countries.'

While its full range of functions are yet to begin, namely with regard to handling food scares and food emergencies, Mr Podger said that EFSA's work is already underway. 'One of our long term projects involves looking at the issue of how risk assessment is carried out for biotechnology, which is by definition an evolving art because more techniques become available and different approaches become known.'

The second more immediate item on EFSA's agenda has been the issuing of its first opinion. 'The province of upper Austria applied to the Commission to draft a new law, enabling them to opt out of legislation for GM crop cultivation. In order to consider this, the Commission needed a scientific opinion as to whether there are any particular circumstances in Upper Austria which would justify such an approach.

'The biotechnology panel has been looking at this and we issued our opinion concluding that no new scientific evidence exists to justify changing the overall EU approach to GMO risk assessment. This now goes back to the Commission who will have to make a decision on whether to allow Upper Austria to continue to opt out or whether to refuse them permission,' explained Mr Podger.

For more information about EFSA, please visit the following web address:
http://www.efsa.eu.int/

CORDIS RTD-NEWS / © European Communities

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