European Affairs

European Food Safety Authority Will Focus on Science     Print Email
Geoffrey Podger

Geoffrey PodgerAfter a series of alarms about food safety in recent years, the European Union finally has its own food safety watchdog, a kind of European version of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) opened for business in Brussels1 in May 2003, taking over a number of tasks previously entrusted to the European Commission.

The role of EFSA is very different, however, from that of its American counterpart. Whereas the FDA deals with both risk assessment and risk management, EFSA deals only with risk assessment. Risk management remains the prerogative of the Commission. There are two main reasons why Europe has decided on a different division of labor from the United States.

First, there was a strong and understandable feeling on the part of the Commission that, as the official initiator of EU policy, it should retain the right to take actions that properly belonged in the political domain. Second, the European Parliament wanted to have an organization that gave genuinely objective, independent and public advice. The solution adopted combines those two requirements.

EFSA is very much a science-based organization. Its relationship with the member states is not like that of a conventional EU institution. One reason for creating EFSA was the widespread concern that member states were arriving at completely different scientific conclusions about food safety, with disagreement over "mad cow" disease (BSE) the most obvious example. There was no mechanism for bringing people together to establish a consensus, or at least to identify why there were differences, permitting a more informed exchange of views.

National authorities are put in an impossible position if they announce scientific advice to the general public and then discover that another authority has advised the opposite three hours later, and that a committee in Brussels has come to a third and completely incompatible conclusion. The member states recognize that an organization like EFSA is needed to deal with such problems and that they have an interest in it operating effectively.

I should also stress that EFSA does not have authority over the member states' national food safety bodies, except insofar as, under European law, some decisions end up with us because we are the final court of scientific opinion. We hope, nevertheless, that greater coordination will lead to a greater degree of harmony among EU food safety authorities.

EFSA is not, however, trying to produce a standard answer that everyone must accept for all time. Science advances through disagreement and argument, and we have no interest in discouraging that. There is nothing wrong with disagreement among experts - in fact it is a right and proper thing and should continue.

But decisions still have to be taken, on the basis of the best knowledge and expertise available at the time. That is what we are in business to do. When we take decisions we do not claim that we are always right in perpetuity. We are trying to get the best view we can in the circumstances. If everything suddenly changed, then we would change our view.

One of the strengths of EFSA is that the member states are trying to establish better relations with their citizens and have made a good deal of progress in improving the operations of their national agencies. With one or two exceptions, governments have moved away from the old practice of simply putting a minister on television to tell people whether something was safe or not when there was a food safety issue. In such cases, half the country's citizens invariably did not believe the minister because they supported a different political party.

It has taken quite a struggle in many countries to move away from this model. In Sweden, for example, the National Food Administration is composed of a group of independent experts who are more trusted than politicians on food safety problems. So we are fortunate that EFSA is starting work at the same time as complementary authorities are being established in the member states. In fact, it may be best for us to contract out part of our work to the member states' authorities.

We are also seeking to expand our contacts worldwide. Just as individual EU member states ought to know what the others are doing, EFSA ought to know what is happening in North America. Our scientists should be in touch with each other on a daily basis, picking up the telephone and meeting when necessary, to exchange information and views. That is a way in which EFSA can make a great contribution to Transatlantic understanding.

It is not the role of EFSA to appear before the World Trade Organization in trade disputes involving food safety issues, but rather to help bring American and European scientists together at an early stage in the hope of reducing the political impact of such differences. We are already bringing colleagues from the ten new member states that will join the European Union in May 2004 into our network, and we are working with other European countries that are not EU members, such as Norway, Switzerland and Iceland, because food safety does not respect boundaries.

We are also trying to make EFSA responsible to its stakeholders. Meetings of our management committee are broadcast over the Internet, and we are holding discussions with scientific, industrial and consumer organizations to explore ways in which they could be more involved in the risk assessment process. We are talking to them about how they might help out with risk communication, given that both industry and consumer organizations could contribute a great deal in that area if they wanted to do so.

What people want from us is a much greater degree of openness and transparency than in the past, and clear timetables for what we are doing. They want to know where various issues are in the review process and when they may be brought to a conclusion. There has been a rather lackadaisical approach to timetables in the preparation of European scientific advice, and we need to do better, both to get the work done and to preserve public confidence.

Another big change is that there will be a much clearer degree of scientific input into the risk management measures adopted by the European Union. There is a hideous temptation for risk managers to slide over the more awkward parts of a scientific opinion for fear of unpopularity. EFSA will shine a light on all these rather dark areas and issue opinions that will inevitably confront the Commission, the European Parliament and industry with some interesting challenges.

There will be arguments about whether the risk management measures others propose following our advice are really sensible or not, whether they are really founded on scientific evidence, whether they are disproportionate, too severe or not severe enough. That kind of debate has not really got going yet in the European Union.

We need to conduct such discussions, however, because you can put people at unnecessary risk by neglecting the dark corners of risk assessment. Equally, you can waste huge amounts of money on risk management measures that have no scientific underpinning and simply seem like a good idea at the time. EFSA will quite rightly aim to help expose such problems.

There will also be greater cooperation with the member states, not just between the member states and EFSA, but also among the member states themselves. We should encourage the various national authorities to spend more time talking to each other because they often face common problems. There may be no need for EFSA to intervene in many of these issues.

The European Union is not short of excellent resources for dealing with food safety. But it does have a problem making the best use of these resources. The European Union is not good at sharing knowledge or exploiting its research. In particular, it is not good at allowing smaller countries that cannot maintain a scientific capacity across all fields to have access to the work being done in other member states.

There are good reasons for sharing resources. Member states increasingly discover that the food issues they are dealing with have already arisen somewhere else in the European Union. We do not want member states to have completely different standards of scientific understanding. That does not help anybody.

We also have to consider the effects of food safety issues on European public opinion, which is often rather misrepresented in the United States. Americans sometimes seem to regard Europeans as completely hysterical on food issues and, indeed, often on all scientific issues as well. That impression is not borne out, however, by a very interesting study conducted by the Commission's Eurobarometer polling service shortly after the "mad cow" crisis.

Far from showing that Europeans are skeptical toward science, the survey revealed very high levels of interest in science and a desire for more scientific information in all European countries. It is very important for EFSA not to start with the defeatist attitude that people are not really interested in science and do not want to hear about it. The way forward is to start from the premise that people are not being given enough information and do not have opportunities to hear scientific discussions.

Food is going to remain a very emotionally sensitive issue in Europe, whatever EFSA does and however successful we may be. Many countries regard their diet as being part of their national identity. There is nothing wrong with that. But it means that food acquires an extraordinary importance and attacks on European food are almost similar to attacks on the flag in the United States. There are also primal issues touching the emotions about food, including the feeding of babies and children, that will not go away.

Decisions on food safety will obviously be better if they are based on scientific knowledge. But even if people know the scientific evidence, and have greater respect for those who provide it, they are still going to have other concerns. When the issue of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) came to a head in the UK, there were already GM products on the market. They were clearly labeled and many people bought them.

A significant protest group objected to them, but it made little headway at first because people had a choice. Nobody was forced to eat GMOs if they did not want to, and they were gaining a degree of acceptability. Suddenly, however, commodity crops started arriving from North America in which GMO and non-GMO varieties could not be differentiated. That gave those who were objecting on purely ethical grounds an argument for changing public opinion in their direction.

It was not because the science changed. It was not because the protestors changed their presentation of the science. It was because they were able to point to people's denial of choice. And if Europeans feel they have been denied a choice, they tend to react strongly.

The present debate on GMOs in Europe has become muddled. There is some confusion over the scientific arguments, and many of the protests are based on emotional reactions. Some opponents have ethical or moral objections; others object to GMOs because they do not like multinational corporations or new inventions coming from the other side of the Atlantic.

All these arguments have become completely mixed up. But that does not mean that they are not powerful arguments, or that they are unique to Europe. The same kinds of arguments are sometimes heard in North America on other issues.

In my view, it is quite clear that the only practical way of ever getting out of the problem of European public opinion in relation to GMOs is through labeling, even though American exporters do not like the idea. The great advantage of labeling is that it provides a choice. And while the people who insist on choice may be quite a small part of the population, they are very vociferous and they are often in positions of power and prominence.

It is also only going to be possible to open this market successfully if products come onto the market that have obvious advantages for consumers. Europeans are no different from North Americans in that, if they see an advantage in something, they are prepared to accept that some people say there may be a risk. They know, as we all do, there are risks everywhere in life.

That does not reflect, however, the present position in Europe. After the sudden retreat from the use of GMOs by the retailers in the European Union and subsequently by food processors, the industry concluded that, from the commercial point of view, it was just not worthwhile to carrying on trying to sell GMO products. They felt that they were just going to run into problems with GMOs, whereas they could sell non-GMO products without any trouble.

There is evidence, however, that while anti-GMO organizations are still very strident in their opposition, the public mood may be changing. A good deal of research was done in the UK, which suggested that if you ask people what they are concerned about in relation to food safety, they never actually mention GMOs at all unless specifically prompted.

That might be because they thought they were not consuming any GMO products, but the polls also showed that people thought they were eating more than they actually were. The most sensitive issue now in Europe is the question of whether GMO crops could cause environmental damage.

Most people now think it unlikely that GMO crops are going to wipe out the whole of wildlife, as some have claimed. But there are real fears that organic crops could be contaminated by GMOs, because it is very difficult to argue that some degree of cross-pollination is not going to take place. We must also remember, however, that there is danger that if we ban certain kinds of food processes, they may be replaced by processes that carry even greater risks.

The one thing EFSA can do is to keep a straight course in terms of giving people all the information we have on the science, and to continue to make clear that we believe in the regulatory process that we are using. Equally, of course, we are always open to new scientific evidence and to improving the regulatory process if necessary.

At the December 2003 European Council Summit in Brussels, it was decided that Parma, Italy will be the permanent location for the European Food Safety Authority. Now headquartered in Brussels, EFSA will relocate "no later than 2005."

Geoffrey Podger is Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). He previously was Chief Executive of the UK Food Standards Agency. He worked for the UK Department of Health for 18 years beginning in 1982, where he was Under-Secretary for Health Promotion. He was subsequently appointed Head of the Combined Joint Food Safety and Standards Group of the Department of Health and the Ministry of Fisheries and Food from its inception in 1997.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number V, Issue number I in the Winter of 2004.