12 Jul 2012 --- The series of food crises in the late 1990s prompted recognition among European public authorities and policy makers that the EU food safety system needed to be recast. The introduction of the General Food Law in 2002 separated the functions of risk assessment and risk management and led to the creation of EFSA. This new approach sought to ensure the highest levels of consumer protection and restore the confidence of consumers and trading partners. Almost 10 years after EFSA published its first scientific opinion, the approach is well established. Today, the advice that the Authority provides to risk managers underpins many of the laws and regulations in place to protect European consumers from food-related risks.
According to a Eurobarometer report on perceptions of food-related risk in 2010, EU citizens have a high level of trust in scientists (73%) and national and European food safety agencies (64%) as sources of information on food risks. There is also broad agreement that public authorities do a lot to ensure that food is safe in Europe, that they are quick to act, base their decisions on scientific evidence and do a good job in informing people about food-related risks. The level of agreement in the 2010 Eurobarometer report is higher than that in a similar survey carried out in 2005. A qualitative research study with EFSA’s stakeholders on the image of the Authority carried out in 2010 highlighted the fact that its stakeholders would not want to return to the pre- EFSA food safety system.
Nonetheless, the 2010 Eurobarometer also raised potential areas of concern. Less than half of EU citizens (47%) think that scientific advice on food-related risks is independent of commercial or political interests. As a risk assessor evaluating the safety of products subject to regulation, for example genetically modified organisms or the active substances found in pesticides, EFSA must pay particular attention to these figures. Indeed, the Authority is acutely aware that public trust in the organisation and its scientific experts is fundamental to the value of the scientific advice that it provides.
An example of EFSA’s approach to building trust can be seen in the related actions and decisions it took in 2011. In total, the Authority screened more than 8,000 Declarations of Interest from external experts and staff, scrutinised more than 40,000 agenda items, prevented 356 potential conflicts of interest and initiated two ‘breach of trust’ procedures. In the same year, the Authority also adopted a Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision-Making Processes. The new policy, which was subject to a public consultation and discussed at length with stakeholders and interested parties, integrates in one document the wide range of initiatives EFSA has put in place since its creation to foster trust in its work.
Independence and transparency, in particular, are issues that are addressed in depth in this document, for example in proposal to simplify and clarify the rules related to potential conflicts of interest for staff and scientific experts engaged in the Authority’s work. It also increases information on how decisions on conflicts of interest are reached, it strengthens procedures concerning breaches of trust and it amends the definition of conflict of interest to better reflect guidelines from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD).
Over the last 10 years, EFSA has developed and strengthened its approach to building trust and ensuring the highest scientific standards in its work. It goes without saying that the Authority is firmly committed to continuing its efforts in this area over the next 10 years and beyond.