The newly-established European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is not about to 'abandon Brussels,' according to executive director Geoffrey Podger, and transparency and independence will be the defining characteristics of the agency. Podger used a specially arranged forum at the European Economic and Social Committee's (EESC) Section for Agricultural and Rural Affairs (NAT) to set out his agenda.
To start with, Podger was keen to emphasise that the authority was now fully up and running, and that the recent decision to locate EFSA in the Italian city of Parma did not mean that it would 'abandon Brussels'. But he said that for the authority needed to be completely independent of the European Commission so that it could express its views openly and bolster independent contact with relevant organisations such as the EESC.
Podger said that good communication channels on food safety were also vital if the EFSA was to succeed. Following a number of recent food scares, communicating clear, accurate information to a wide range of audiences such as scientists, the food industry and the consumer is a particularly important responsibility for the authority.
But communicating on the issue of food safety is not just up to EFSA but also relevant EU Member States' national authorities and stakeholders, such as food producers and consumer organisations. Their role, said Podger, is vital in the effective communication of information about food safety to different national and cultural audiences.
During the debate that followed, various interest groups within the European food industry were able to air their views. There were calls from manufacturers for the EFSA to concentrate on educating consumers rather than putting pressure on governments for more legislation, while others stressed the need for accurate statistics concerning food imports into the European Union. There were also calls for animal welfare concerns to be extended beyond the EU's borders.
Podger agreed with the EESC that while it was important to identify potential food safety problems early, "there was an equal obligation to use science to prove to people, when appropriate, that there isn't a problem with their food". He also stressed the importance of "combining food safety and animal welfare", stating it was "unwise to separate the two issues". The lack of reliable data on food imports into the EU, he said, was "worrying".
In conclusion he compared giving the EU citizen advice on the safety of their food to a visit to the doctor. "EFSA is about honestly informing people about the best course of action given the information available," he said. "People cannot accept uncertainty. What they want is advice on the best course of action."