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The appointment of a new executive director comes at a crucial time for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), as it seeks to shape its role within the EU’s regulatory framework, while building links with all industry stakeholders. Incoming chief Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle discussed the challenges ahead with just-food’s Keith Nuthall.

As befits an intelligent and knowledgeable senior official grounded in the French tradition of government, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle’s vision for the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is one of ever increasing harmony with Europe’s food industry and national regulators.

Not for Geslain-Lanéelle an aggressive approach of issuing rules and statements that may or may not conflict with national food safety agencies or food industry interests. Rather a consensual approach, involving EFSA’s political and industry partners in informed debate and consultation about food safety issues, so that regulators and businesses not only tend to agree with the agency’s positions, but also help define them.

“I’m not going to say to member states ‘you should do this or that’. Rather, ‘how can we help?’,” Geslain-Lanéelle said, speaking from EFSA’s new permanent headquarters in Parma, Italy.

This strategy follows the priorities set for the next five years by the EFSA management board on the day the new executive director took office. Mme Geslain-Lanéelle is very much an inside appointment: she served as a vice-chair of the board, when working as a risk management specialist at the European Commission, and latterly, as director-general of food at the French agriculture ministry.

One of these priorities is improving collaboration between the EU agency and its national counterparts. An EFSA advisory forum linking these bodies will, from September, begin developing a formal strategy on how these relationships should work:

“We need to create consensus,” says Geslain-Lanéelle. “This is going to be an operational strategy. We need to strengthen the scientific cooperation with member states; it’s a priority for the coming years. A greater involvement of member states will lead to better scientific excellence.”

At the same time, Geslain-Lanéelle will be pushing for closer ties with Europe’s food industry and consumers. Next month, she will seek to make permanent EFSA’s ‘stakeholder platform’, which links the agency with manufacturer and producer federations, as well as consumer groups and environmental NGOs.

This has so far been a trial project, but Geslain-Lanéelle believes the platform has already proved its worth. “We need to improve the way we work with our stakeholders,” she said, while stressing the importance of discussing strategic issues and improving the “transparency of [EFSA’s] risk assessment process”.

For if there is one crucial aim behind fostering more dialogue and consultation, it is to increase trust in EFSA’s decisions, so that they carry more influence. “It’s very important for everyone to be aware of how we work, in terms of the declaration of interests and the organisation of debate on our scientific panels, so that we ensure everyone is participating, and that minority opinions are taken into account.” In addition to having confidence in EFSA’s opinions, food industry, consumers and regulators should also be able to offer “suggestions and criticism”, Geslain-Lanéelle added.

An example of where such holistic strategies might work is emerging food risks, an area where EFSA is currently reviewing its policy. The agency is assessing the creation of a global warning system, based on a network of trusted public and private organisations. They would feed information on new diseases, contaminations and other issues to the agency, which would then examine them speedily and assess a suitable response.

Geslain-Lanéelle said databases available to EU member states and international organisations should be linked to EFSA’s own information network, although exactly how this emerging risk system will work is still under discussion.

Its aim, however, would be to help member states decide what action to take to face an emerging food-related health risk, and to promote collaboration. Also, EFSA may talk to the food industry directly about such matters. “We don’t exclude advising stakeholders. It’s important to work with them as they have the first responsibility for ensuring the safety of food and feed,” she said.

Another area of future joint EFSA-national government activity that could impact significantly on the food sector will be nutrition. The agency is drawing up a paper on recommended micro- and macro-nutrients for EU consumers, a report that will inevitably spark a wide debate.

Aware of the political sensitivities of recommending a single European diet, the executive director stressed EFSA would not be saying how EU citizens should consume such nutrients. “We should be careful with that. We don’t want (to propose) a unique diet in Europe. That would be counterproductive.”

Whatever happens with these initiatives, it is clear that EFSA’s formal role within the EU’s food regulatory system is growing and will continue to enlarge. It has work to carry out within the new EU nutritional and health claims directive, and is already closely involved with GM product risk assessment. Under a draft law, it will advise on new pesticides, and under new proposals from the Commission would issue opinions on new additives, flavourings and enzyme ingredients.

It’s a lot of work, and will cost money. Geslain-Lanéelle’s appointment has come as the EU is considering its medium-term budget for 2007 to 2013, as well as its 2007 spending. She said that EFSA currently needs EUR57m (US$73m) a year, but with all EU budgets under pressure she will have to fight her corner. “All this new activity will have an impact on EFSA,” she said. “We will have to transform our internal organisation and improve the efficiency of our work. But we will need new human and financial resources to face these new activities.”

Geslain-Lanéelle said that as well as forging better relations with the food industry and member states, she saw fostering close links with the European Commission and the European Parliament as very important. This may also prove crucial for EFSA’s financial health, as the agency seeks to fulfil its expanding role.