The Management Board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) met yesterday for the first time after the set up of the Scientific Committee and panels which give the Authority its core capability.
The panels' inaugural meetings took place between 21-27th May. At this important time in the development of EFSA, the Board decided to put priority setting and openness at the top of the agenda.
Chairman of the Board, Stuart Slorach said: "We have now successfully set up the main cornerstones of the Authority within the promised deadlines. To continue with the momentum, it is now very important that we focus on what can realistically be achieved in the short, medium and long terms, and how we can be as open as possible with information which is generated, without compromising our ability to act with maximum effectiveness in the interests of the consumer."
The EFSA says that the demand for its services will, at least initially, be likely to exceed it available resources, particularly as its staffing levels remain very low at the present time. Consequently, it has the task of achieving the best possible balance between routine work, such as that in the product assessment area, and more strategic work aimed at identifying emerging risks.
The body says that the workload is difficult to forecast accurately for a number of reasons. One of these is the scaling down of the Commission's risk assessment activities which will leave a backlog in some areas. Also advice is likely to be needed at short notice to meet political priorities; demands will come from new sources (the Parliament and Member States). On top of that heavy workloads have already been identified in some key areas and although the Scientific Committee and panels have been set up, the current full time EFSA support staff is around 35 in comparison to the planned full complement of up to 300 staff.
With this in mind, the body's executive director, Geoffrey Podger, was quick to point out that "it is critical that we determine the best possible approach to prioritising the workload, at this stage, in collaboration with our customers. The first major step in the process was taken by the Board today in deciding on the main principles. The basis of the prioritisation approach will be; the allocation of priority to questions which raise issues of importance to public health; the meeting of legal deadlines to the maximum extent possible and; the Commission, Parliament and Member States' own prioritisation of their requests."
The Board also discussed the specific issues relating to openness and transparency extensively, and confirmed their support for the aims of providing a framework in which consumers can have confidence; taking into account the legitimate needs of stakeholders as a basis for risk assessment and subsequent risk management decisions; allowing for informed debate on sensitive and important scientific issues.
The main objectives of the discussion were to begin to clarify how EFSA will operate these principles in practice, and to address those circumstances in which information may be sought from EFSA but will not, or not immediately, be made available.
With respect to commercial confidentiality, EFSA will discuss the level(s) of confidentiality to be applied and is ready to take a challenging approach to issues which are seen to be in the public interest. With respect to the presentation of scientific advice, the Board felt that some degree of confidential discussion was justified during scientific debate, not least to encourage dissenting views. Equally, the Scientific Committee and panels were to be encouraged to develop methods which would allow for some stakeholder participation in the risk assessment process. Thus, an effective balance could be achieved between openness and confidentiality in scientific discussion.
The Board also felt that achieving the best method of risk communication also requires a degree of confidential discussion. This will ensure that scientific issues are set in a proper context and communicated to the public in a way which is proportionate to the associated risk.
The Board also discussed and approved the EFSA decision on access to documents. Papers relating to the meeting can be found on the Authority's website.