The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has called for a further strengthening of the EU's risk assessment capacity at a high-level scientific conference in Parma to mark the agency's 10th anniversary.
The two-day conference, Challenging boundaries in risk assessment – sharing experiences, which ended yesterday (8 November), brought together global specialists from a wide range of scientific disciplines.
The scientists examined the frontiers of risk assessment and considered future key issues and opportunities.
“EFSA functions thanks to the EU risk assessment community,” Hubert Deluyker, EFSA's director of Science Strategy and Coordination, said in a speech.
“And we are central to its progress, for instance through the development of guidance that has harmonised and modernised methodologies relating to risk assessment for food and feed over the past decade.”
The conference came amid renewed controversy surrounding the approval of genetically modified crops in Europe after a French biologist from the University of Caen published a study that questioned the safety of Monsanto's GM maize.
The French government immediately asked the country's health watchdog to investigate the findings further and called on European authorities to "take all necessary measures to protect human health", including an "emergency suspension" of imports of the maize variety in Europe.
EFSA later rebuked the French study, saying in a preliminary report that the research was "of insufficient scientific quality for safety assessments".
In doing so, the agency drew accusations that it was too close to the biotech industry, illustrating the political sensitivity of GMOs, which are banned for cultivation in Austria and several other European countries.
"It's not our role to say whether we like GMOs or not," said EFSA Executive Director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. "We are just here to access the risk. This does noes ease our work because we are scientists and we work in a very political environment," she added.
Speaking at the conference, Geslain-Lanéelle reaffirmed the food safety agency's commitment to expanding risk-assessment capacity in Europe.
Other top speakers were Anne Glover, chief scientific advisor to the European Commission, Jesse Goodman of the US Food and Drug Administration, and EFSA expert and University of Rome Professor Vittorio Silano.
The context in which the EFSA operates has evolved significantly in recent years, the speakers stressed, driven both by advancements in science and technology as well as changes in the legislative framework.
This has seen an increased emphasis in EFSA’s workload towards the evaluation of regulated products, environmental risk assessment and post-market monitoring.
Deluyker called for a debate on how risk assessment organisations such as EFSA can best focus their finite resources in the face of growing and evolving demands for their expertise from regulatory authorities and different stakeholder groups.
While cooperation with public health bodies and research institutes is critical for EFSA’s work, stakeholders also have an important role to play in the risk assessment community, for example, by collecting and sharing of data with public authorities.
“A core challenge is about where we focus our time and effort to continue to make progress in protecting consumers," Deluyker said.
The delegates at the conference will during the conference have the opportunity to attend sessions that will focus on identifying and characterising hazards; environmental risk assessment; dietary exposure in risk assessment; risk characterisation and efficacy assessment in food and feed.
Wrapping up the conference, Tony Hardy, chair of EFSA’s Scientific Committee, said that the conference should not be a one-off.
"These scientific conferences should take place more often and focus on some of the issues raised. Science will always drive forward with developments in technology and also in scientific theory," Hardy stated.