The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), a European Union (EU) agency based in Parma, Italy, was set up in 2002 following a series of food crises including BSE and dioxins. EFSA’s main role is to provide scientific advice to EU institutions and member states on all aspects of food and feed safety, animal health and welfare, nutrition, plant protection and plant health.
EFSA is currently revising its policy on public consultation, together with its stakeholders.
A history of public engagement
EFSA’s founding regulation underlines the need for the Authority to cooperate with EU member states and other interested parties and stresses that the organisation should be open to contacts with consumers and other groups. This emphasis has so far led to 34 public consultations on a wide range of issues and a range of other activities promoting public engagement.
The first public consultation, on criteria for assessing resistance to antibiotics with regard to feed additives, was launched in December 2004. The latest, on a draft set of guidelines for the safety evaluation of food enzymes, will close on 8 June. In between, there have been consultations on issues including pesticides, animal cloning, nanotechnology, dietary reference values and health claims.
These public consultations, which are run via the EFSA website, have so far generated roughly 4,500 comments from around 450 entities. At the end of each one, EFSA publishes a written report stating how many submissions were received, the main issues raised and – where appropriate – how the comments were incorporated into the Authority’s final scientific output.
EFSA also engages in regular dialogue with a large number of stakeholders, including consumer groups, NGOs, science professionals, farmers and manufacturers. Formal activities include a twice-yearly Stakeholder Consultative Platform, which provides a platform for the open exchange of information, opinions and ideas.
The example of GMOs
One of EFSA’s tasks is to provide scientific advice to policymakers on the safety of genetically-modified organisms (GMOs). EFSA’s GMO Panel has been one of the most active in terms of public engagement, launching six consultations to date. These include consultations on EFSA’s main guidance document to EU member states on the risk assessment of GMOs, and the renewal of GM authorisations.
The general public also have the chance to comment on GMO authorisations under the most recent of the two legislative procedures which are currently in place in the EU. This process – which is managed by the European Commission – takes place after the publication of an EFSA opinion on any given GMO, which is itself drawn up in consultation with the EU member states. EFSA also interacts with national risk assessment bodies on GMOs through its Advisory Forum.
Reviewing the policy
The review of EFSA’s public consultation policy will take stock of the lessons learned over the last seven years, to make more improvements to the process.
Specifically, it aims, first, to provide criteria for identifying when the public should be consulted on scientific outputs. Second, to identify the type of scientific outputs on which public consultations can be performed. Third, to specify how the effectiveness of public consultations can be ensured. Fourth, to establish clear practices for reporting on the outcome of consultations.
Following initial discussions in March, a revised version of the strategy will be presented to the Stakeholder Consultative Platform at its next meeting in June.
The new approach will then be published on the EFSA website. A review of its implementation is planned within two years.