The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) continues to expand its scientific work this year, with an eye on the upcoming implementation of new EU legislation covering a variety of industry segments.
The growth in the EFSA's activities follows a significant expansion in the agency's risk assessments and authorisations last year, according to the body's annual report, published this week.
The annual report demonstrates that while continuing to do its work, EFSA is still in the startup phase. EFSA was established as the bloc's scientific risk assessment agency by the European Parliament in 2002 following a series of food scares in the 1990s.
The agency's mandate of scientific assessment was seen as legislators as a bid to restore consumer confidence in the safety of the food chain. EFSA advice is also valuable to the food industry, which must comply with the bloc's food legislation, which continues to grow towards a more harmonised regime.
EFSA plans to consolidate its thematic work plan started in 2005, which will include a focus on publishing selected opinions and on developing databases on European food consumption.
EFSA also plans to continue recruiting more staff in anticipation of new legislation expected to come into force in 2006.
Such legislation deals with health claims and the fortification offoods, novel foods other than genetically modified organisms (GMOs) and a new framework regulation on food additives.
On 31 December 2005, EFSA staff numbered a total of 160. Forty new staff members were recruited in 2005, 21 of whom joined EFSA's science department.
EFSA noted in its annual report that recruitment in 2005 suffered from various factors, such as the delay in approval of the agency's recruitment plans, and the relocation during the year of its operations to Parma, Italy from Brussels.
Another major setback occurred when EFSA's first executive director, Geoffrey Podger, cut his five-year mandate short by resigning in November. Podger is now head of the British Health and Safety Executive.
EFSA's new executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, takes up the position on 1 July.
During 2005 the number of requests to EFSA for scientific opinions increased to a total of 301 requests, a rise of 65 per cent from 2004. In 2005 EFSA's scientific panels adopted a record number of 163 opinions, bringing the overall total number of published opinions to 352 since EFSA became operational in May 2003.
The investigations included emerging public health concerns, such as avian influenza, the safety of goat meat and goat meat products in relation to BSE risk, and the discovery that the substances 2-isopropyl thioxanthone (ITX) and 2-ethylhexyl-dimethylaminobenzoate (EHDAB) were migrating to foods through packaging materials.EFSA also delivered scientific assessments on topics such as the safety of wild and farmed fish and on the upper limits for vitamins and minerals.
An independent evaluation of EFSA's work, published last year, found that "EFSA has done well" considering it had been operational for only two years and had faced a restrictive budget.
"EFSA is now at a crossroad: it must expand, develop, consolidate and build on its first success," the evaluation report recommended. "Therefore, it must ensure that its structures, organisation, procedures and systems are suitable for the challenges ahead."
EFSA's budget in 2005 was about €31.5m, compared to €22.6m in 2004.
EFSA's two main areas of work are risk assessment and risk communication. Risk management measures and the operation of food control systems are not within EFSA's remit and remain the responsibility of the European Commission and individual member states.