"The recommendations arose as a result of input received at a recent meeting withrepresentatives of consumer and industrial organisations," said EFSA management board chairman Stuart Slorach.
"I am particularly pleased with the outcome, which will play an important part in the development and implementation of our approach to public involvement. However, this was only one of the issues discussed at our Board meeting today. Importantly, we also had the opportunity to review the 2004 workprogramme, which shows the way that the Authority will develop next year."
The announcement follows the EFSA's meeting in Ostend, Belgium on 23 to 24 October 2003. The purpose of this event was to identify ways in which the EFSA could work best with consumers and the food industry to contribute to improved EU food safety. As a result of the discussions, many different ideas were put forward. The decision to set up an EFSA stakeholder forum is an important development, as this will enable a formal means of information exchange.
Scientific meetings are the core of the authority's work and scientific independence remains the most important underlying principle. Ways are still being sought to improve opennessby allowing stakeholders to provide input, but the FSA has stressed that this has to be achieved in a manner that maintains the independence of scientific work. Nonetheless, the concept of holding public hearings on key scientific issues is being explored together with the possibility of consulting on certain scientific opinions in draft.
Participants at the Ostend meeting also gave strong support to the board's policy ofensuring balance in the work programme, thus ensuring the consideration of widerscientific issues as well as answering specific scientific questions. In addition, theyagreed with EFSA that consideration should be given to the wider involvement ofstakeholders in risk communication. The EFSA will also issue an electronic newsletter from March 2004 as part of a broader initiative to expand and improve its electronic communications via the website.
The 2004 management plan was also discussed extensively at the meeting, a key elementof which is the EFSA scientific work programme. This document is the basis for theAuthority's €28 million budget for 2004. The management plan will be discussed further at the forthcoming January meeting.
The move to open up the FSA is interesting as it comes after the UK's food safety watchdog, the Food Standards Agency (FSA), was heavily criticised by politicians for its failure to addres public concerns. A parliamentary public accounts committee said that the body needed to worker harder if it was to become an authoritative and trusted voice for consumers.
Among the most damning comments was the statement that the body was still failing to lead the way on safety and standards. Specific concerns such as the monitoring of hygiene in hotels, restaurants and other catering outlets were raised. Members of Parliament also said that the authority needs to promote issues better, such as washing hands before preparing food.
According to the UK's Guardian newspaper, the report also suggested that the agency should name and shame manufacturers who fail to label products properly. This, of course, is an issue with European-wide implications. There has also been much talk in the UK and elsewhere about forcing companies to focus on nutritional and health aspects when promoting food to children.