Attracting top scientists, speed of assessment, and communication are vital in ensuring EFSA's success as Europe's food risk assessor, said speakers at the authority's fifth anniversary conference in Brussels yesterday.
The European Food Safety Authority was established in 2002 by regulation EC178/2002, which laid out the general principals of food law and decreed that the risk assessment and risk management be conducted separately. At that time, consumer confidence in food safety structures was at a low, after the BSE crisis of the 1990s.
Speakers at the opening of a two-day conference to mark five years of EFSA took stock of the achievements that the authority has made to date - including the completion of 55 peer reviews to date.
But in the mix with the birthday congratulations were a series of challenges the authority faces as it received more assessment briefs from the European Commission - not only on 'old friends' like BSE, dioxins and salmonella, but also on emerging technologies such as nanotechnology and cloning, and nutrition-related public health issues like obesity.
Crucially Dagmar Roth-Behrendt, Member of the European Parliament, laid bare in her keynote address what the European Parliament expects from EFSA: Clear messages and the best scientific evidence.
"Do we have that today?" she asked.
While praising Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle's leadership since she became executive director in April 2006, her own answer - that there are still lessons to be learned even from the BSE crisis - underscored her view that some areas are still lacking.
Speed and recognition
Of the speed at which EFSA delivers its opinions, Roth-Behrendt said: "In my view it is not quick enough."
But she added that the European Parliament will always want opinions "tomorrow", and granted that science takes time.
She also said that EFSA needs to network with problem countries - and those problem countries are not Japan and the US, with which it already has close ties.
Closer attention to China and India, where food safety has been called into question, is needed at some stage "if we have to decide if we close borders".
Although this approach is deemed extreme and controversial, she said that EFSA would take a leading role.
She added that she would like to see EFSA better known - in five years, it should be the food authority.
Crème de crème of scientists
In her welcome address Geslain-Lanéelle roundly praised the over-400 scientists, who are recognised as experts, with which EFSA currently works, and said that EFSA's ability to provide risk assessment depends on their dedication.
However Roth-Behrendt reinforced the need to ensure that the very best scientific minds were on board with EFSA.
"EFSA cannot afford to take less than the crème de la crème of scientists," she said. "If not, then it is not credible enough."
In his closing remarks from the introductory session, chair Herman Koëter, EFSA's director of science said that the authority is happy with the experts it has on board.
Considering how well known they are in Europe, they are indeed the crème de la crème, he said. "We weed to maintain that level, and go higher."
Koëter added a remark on the dedication of the scientists who work with EFSA, saying that they conduct most of their EFSA work outside of their day jobs because such is the volume that it would take up 40 per cent of their time.
"We realise that there is a limit on what we can ask them to do."
Moreover, choice of scientists is closely linked with the issue of transparency - an over-riding principal at EFSA.
While Roth-Behrendt said much progress has been made on this (with its website, for instance, and known intentions of staff), it also needs to come into play with choice of scientists, their connections and any possibly lack of objectivity in their opinions.
"EFSA determined to resist outside influence," she said, "and transparency will bring added value."
Robert Madelin, Director General, DG Health and Consumer Protection, added in his keynote address entitled "Does EFSA make a difference" that there is a need to ensure there are scientists on panels who hail from old and new member states.
Geslain-Lanéelle said that there is a need for communication of scientific information in a clear and timely manner. It is problematic when the conclusions of risk assessment not being adequately translated.
However there is great diversity amongst the 490m consumers in the EU, and it is hard to reach them all with a single message.
Close cooperation with member states bodies is important, she said, and "messages must be culturally appropriate and adequately address the challenges."
Madelin raised the point of the interface between risk assessment and precaution, and how this sits with communication of risks to the non-scientific population.
It is not just a matter of keeping Europe healthy and safe, he said, but to keeping Europe confident too - since confidence allows us to go out, enjoy, work and spend - and not to worry!
"If science can't serve European society with innovative, competitive food chain that is acceptable to citizens then it will have failed," he said.
With this in mind, the science needs to get to non-scientists, and be understood.
And that will only happen when a risk assessor can have a real conversation with an ordinary citizen that does not end with the words "it cannot be excluded that".
"Risk assessors in EFSA and elsewhere have to decide when they are sure enough and when they are not sure," said Madelin. "If risk assessors don't decide where the risk is, there is no decision on where to apply."
This, precaution could end up being misplaced.
Brussels vs Parma
There was also some debate about whether or not EFSA's seat in Parma is a benefit or a hindrance to its operation.
To Roth-Behrendt, it is a hindrance.
"It is not your fault you are sitting not in Brussels… I hear Parma is a wonderful place. But I hear it is hard to get to."
Madelin, on the other hand, said: "I find Parma not disagreeable," quipping that he can get a lot of work done on buses, plans and cards, and it reminds "people like him" that they need to get out of Brussels sometimes."
"Investment in distant locations is an interesting experiments," he said. "Europe is a big place, and we have to look beyond 'Oh dear, Parma isn't Brussels'."
In seriousness, however, he said that EFSA's Parma base is a physical reminder that regulatory agencies are separate from the European decision-makers, and his conviction is that separation of power is not a bad thing.
FoodNavigator.com will be reporting from other sessions at the EFSA five-year anniversary conference this week.