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Food frontline

Worries over pesticides, aspartame and endocrine disruptors are keeping scientists at the European Food Safety Authority busy, but, as Catie Lichten finds out, there’s a difference between providing advice and making policy.

In the 1990s, bovine spongiform encephalopathy, better known as mad cow disease, affected an estimated 185,000 animals in Europe. The disease was particularly alarming because it could spread to people. Along with scares from salmonella outbreaks and concerns about toxic diozxins, mad cow disease greatly weakened consumer confidence in food production. Europe’s food market was in crisis.

The European Commission took action, with two major outcomes. First there was the General Food Law Regulation, which the EU adopted in 2002. This sets out principles and requirements governing every step in the production of food and animal feed. The second was the creation of the European Food Safety Authority, which was born in May 2002. Since its creation, Efsa has grown to employ around 450 people and is based in Parma, Italy.

One outcome of the 2002 food legislation was the se-
paration of risk assessment in food from risk management, which means deciding what legislation is appropriate based on the risk assessment. Efsa was tasked with food risk assessment, so its role is to provide scientific advice about food safety. Its remit covers the food we eat and also animal feed, animal welfare and plant health.

“Efsa as an organisation doesn’t have any role in defining policy and it doesn’t have any role in giving authorisations for products,” says Efsa spokesman James Ramsay. He also stresses that Efsa evaluations only look at scientific evidence. Efsa does not take into consideration social, economic or other factors that would be important for decisions about legislation.

As a result, Efsa’s involvement with discoveries that products being sold as beef in the EU in fact contain horsemeat has been minimal. The organisation’s only role so far has been to carry out, at the request of the Commission, a risk assessment on the presence of an anti-inflammatory known as phenylbutazone, which has been found in horsemeat. The horsemeat scandal “is essentially a food fraud issue”, Ramsay says, “so it’s to do with mislabelling of products and that’s something that falls outside of our remit”.

Efsa has 10 scientific units covering topics such as genetically modified organisms, food additives, and pesticides. Each unit also has a scientific panel comprising up to 20 external scientists with expertise in that unit’s area. The panel members, who work on a voluntary basis, are recruited through a public call and are then appointed by Efsa’s management board. The board itself has 15 members who are appointed by the European Council in consultation with the European Parliament.

When researching an issue, the panels form working groups to write a draft opinion. This is evaluated by the complete panel in a plenary meeting. “Once the full panel is satisfied with the draft opinion, it’s adopted and published,” Ramsay says. “This is the final Efsa output.”

The evidence Efsa uses to form its opinions comes from the scientific literature, from consultations with its external scientists, and from dossiers produced, for example, by the manufacturer of a product being assessed. Using a genetically modified plant as an example, Ramsay says it is up to the applicants to demonstrate that the plant is safe, which would mean carrying out an environmental assessment and verifying the safety of the plant’s components. Efsa also holds public consultations on some issues, where anyone can submit comments.

Efsa does not usually request additional studies be carried out, which means it can sometimes fail to reach a conclusion. This can often occur, Ramsay says, when Efsa is evaluating health claims, such as that a food improves circulation or digestive health.

Communicating the results of its assessments to policymakers is a critical part of Efsa’s role. The policymakers, who may be acting at the European or member-state level, are then responsible for implementing policy that takes Efsa’s opinion into account.

Efsa has been criticised for including scientists with ties to industry in its working groups. Ramsay says that Efsa has a “very robust policy” in place to prevent conflicts of interest from arising. Efsa experts have to submit a declaration of interest every year “outlining what work they’ve done in the past, what their current employment is, what research they’re working on, what memberships they have, and so on”.

But, he adds, the authority is also careful “to distinguish between an interest and a conflict of interest”.

There has also been criticism about transparency at Efsa. An external review published last year concluded that the agency’s risk assessment process was “still too closed”. In January of this year, Efsa announced that it had begun an internal review on how to resolve this issue.

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