The European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) has reached cruising speed as the foremost authority regarding food safety, according to its newly appointed executive director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, who was speaking in Brussels this morning (Wednesday).

She noted that the EFSA was established in 2002 at a time when consumer confidence in European Union (EU) food safety arrangements was weak. While a recent poll shows risk is no longer uppermost in the public mind, Geslain-Lanéelle thinks the agency has already contributed to an improved and wider understanding of the issues at stake.

In the “huge work” carried out by the 240 staff of her Parma-based agency, a current priority she stressed was risk assessments on pesticides, especially those associated with fruit, on which the European Commission will shortly make recommendations about maximum levels of such chemicals.

She said EFSA’s developing role in terms of researching and spreading information about safe diets, especially the relationship between nutrition and obesity, would be clarified by the end of this year. This process would take time, however, she stressed, because it was an area where the agency would work as closely as possible with member states.

“We’ve given scientific advice on dietetic foods, for example, and micro/macro nutrients in diets but we’re not in the business of suggesting percentage contents for sugar or salt,” she said.

Geslain- Lanéelle was candid about EFSA’s ability to tackle unregulated GMOs; given the world level of their use, EU authorities must expect some modest contamination but despite this the agency was not responsible for food controls. If such questions arise, they must be dealt with by EU member governments, she stressed.

However, EFSA needs to have rapid measures to deal with GMO incidents and be able to publish risk assessments as quickly as possible: “We’ve got to have specific procedures to deal with any emergency and in a matter of weeks publish the best scientific advice available,” she said.

This applies to other areas too such as the recent avian flu scare in which expertise has been galvanised from right across the EU, she noted.

Geslain- Lanéelle was sanguine about the Union’s ten most recent countries despite anxieties raised in some of the older members about the quality control of food products imported from such countries as Poland. She had been impressed by the speed and ambition with which the new EU producers were determined to bring their food production up to prevailing safety standards in the rest of Europe.

Next week in Italy she will hold a meeting with representatives from incoming member states Bulgaria and Romania, to review the work the agency has already carried out in those countries, which will become full EU members on 1 January. “It’s quite impressive to see what their producers have already achieved,” she claimed.

Meanwhile, a new portfolio for the agency has been opened on animal welfare, which the executive director said was an issue closely concerned with food safety. It was therefore important to have a common approach about the biological hazards inherent in animal welfare.

So far EFSA has looked at dairy and farmed fish production, although on the latter she admitted there was not much data so far.