Interview: Dr. Bernhard Url, EFSA’s Executive Director

Dr. Bernhard Url, Executive Director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was interviewed by Erdin Halimić, journalist of Dnevni avaz. With kind permission of the author, You can find complete interview of Dr. Url on the official website of the Food Safety Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina:

  • EFSA’s motto is ‘Trusted science for safe food’. What is the role of science in food safety? Do EU consumers trust in food science and, based on the latest surveys, what are the most reliable sources of information on food risks from the consumer’s perspective?

Good science is the basis of a functioning food safety system. In the EU, the role of risk assessment by scientists at EFSA and the management of those risks by the EU legislators is separated, which has proven highly effective in protecting consumers. In 2019 we carried out a Eurobarometer survey assessing EU consumer views on food safety. More than two-thirds of respondents said that television is one of their main sources of information about food risks, followed by internet (excluding social media). Newspapers and magazines occupy the third place of the podium (38% of the interviewees). I’m not surprised by this result. TV communicates with an impactful and easy language, reaching out directly to people’s emotions. And what it is food if not emotion, culture, and tradition? However, with many Europeans increasingly using the internet and social media, the way we communicate is evolving in line with the needs of the new generations. Our research also found that people trust scientists, but have a low understanding of their role within the EU food system.

  • Topics such as GMOs, use of plant protection products and veterinary medicine products are some of the concerns of consumers in the context of food safety. Some consumers even have a perception that the level of food safety is decreasing due to growing use of different chemical substances in the food chain. What is EFSA’s view?

 We are risk assessors and we stick to scientific evidence, considering all knowledge available, when we provide our advice to risk managers. That said, you are correct – our social research identified that EU citizens tend to worry more about pesticides and other chemicals, which are highly regulated in the current food safety system, whilst they tend to worry less about risks posed by microbiological hazards, which can be found in your kitchen! While it is difficult to pin down exact reasons for these concerns, some explanation may be found in the way people think about chemicals. According to another study we conducted in 2018, chemicals in general are strongly perceived as man-made, as opposed to naturally-occurring substances. Independent of our emotional assumptions the EU food safety system is based on sound regulations and the work of scientists and carefully considered decisions made by the risk managers: Citizens can be reassured that measures are in place to protect their health, including when we talk about chemical risk assessments. That is why the EU food safety system is considered to be a leading example worldwide.

  • What could be done by national authorities, food business operators and consumers individually in order to reduce the risk of antimicrobial resistance as one of the main public health concerns?

You are right, antimicrobial resistance (AMR) is one of the biggest health challenges we have nowadays, and everybody can play a role in fighting it. We can’t afford to return to the pre-antibiotic era, living in a world where a simple infection may lead to severe adverse effects, even to death. We are talking about 33,000 people dying every year due to infections from antibiotic-resistant bacteria, and 1 billion euros in annual healthcare expenditure linked to AMR: this is unacceptable. EU Countries that have put in place stringent policies have seen a reduction in resistance to antimicrobials, which shows that we can do something to improve the situation.  EFSA, together with other EU Agencies, contributes to the whole picture according to the principle of ‘One Health’, which aims at integrating animal and human risk assessments. We have recommended the setting of reduction targets, the phasing out of preventive use of antimicrobials, and suggested ways to replace antimicrobials with alternatives where possible and invest in research. Next year we will publish the result of a new piece of work looking at the role of the environment in the spread of AMR. So you can see that this a multi-faceted topic, and it is therefore important to apply a multidisciplinary, integrated approach to address its complexity.

  • Analysts and farmers in BiH often like to say that the citizens of BiH eat food of poor quality sold in our country. Do you have data on food safety in BiH and what do they say?

Food quality is not equivalent to food safety. Food safety is a pre-requisite for everything on the market: if it is not safe, it is not food. On the basis of safe food many differentiations of quality can be placed on the market. But then we enter into an area outside EFSA’s remit on which I’m afraid I can’t say that much. However, going back to safety, let me stress that EFSA has supported competent authorities in Bosnia and Herzegovina in their efforts towards improving data harmonisation and training. The responsibility of competent authorities for collecting data on food safety actually plays a crucial role in informing citizens and policy-makers about the safety of the food on the market.

  • Data collection is one of EFSA’s key activities. In that context, could you explain what is the importance of data collection (i.e. data on zoonoses and veterinary medicinal product residues) and reporting to EFSA for the EU as well for IPA countries?

This is true: data collection is a pillar of EFSA’s activities because it provides the scientific evidence that is necessary for any risk assessment and constitutes a basis for risk management decisions at European or national level. This is why data harmonisation, in accordance with the requirements of the relevant legislation, is a key factor that allows us to compare situations between different countries and to follow trends within each country and within the European territory. I think the way ahead for our partners in Member States and in IPA countries is to continue to collect and share data in order to increase knowledge about the national situation and to take appropriate control measures against specific threats/ risks. I’d like to take this opportunity to thank Bosnia and Herzegovina for their contribution in the area of zoonoses, foodborne outbreaks and veterinary medicinal product residues. We can’t work in isolation. Only by sharing our data and knowledge can we fight new and emerging risks and protect public health.

  • At the moment, Bosnia and Herzegovina is part of EFSA’s campaign on African swine fever, a disease that is harmless to humans, but can be deadly for pigs and has serious socio-economic consequences for affected countries. The region of south-east Europe has been identified as collectively comprising a “region of concern”. What would be your message to the key stakeholders in the country and region regarding this challenge to animal health and the economy?

Indeed, African Swine Fever is a devastatingly infectious disease for which there is no vaccine or cure. Between 2016 and 2020, 1.3 million pigs were lost in Europe due to African Swine Fever. This is the reason why our campaign explains that detection, prevention and reporting are crucial to stopping the spread of the epidemic. Stopping African Swine Fever is a joint effort! Farmers should keep wild boar away from their livestock and avoid feeding their pigs with food scraps that contain meat from animals. Hunters should not approach dead wild boar they find in the forest and must report the sightings to local authorities. Travelers too have a role to play –they must not take home any pork or pork products from affected areas.

  • Last year, Bosnia and Herzegovina was honored to be the first non-EU country to host an EFSA Focal Point Network. How would you evaluate EFSA’s collaboration with the Food Safety Agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina led by Dr Džemil Hajrić as well as the engagement of institutions from our country in EFSA’s activities?

We have excellent relations with the food safety agency of Bosnia and Herzegovina. And indeed the hosting by Bosnia and Herzegovina of EFSA’s focal point network was an important step towards greater integration. Food safey knows no borders and at EFSA we invest significant time and resources in working with other food safety bodies to build networks, share expertise and exchange information. These activities are also part of the EU assistance programme for pre-accession countries (IPA) through which EFSA supports training of staff, development of institutional structures and enhances preparedness to face possible future food safety crises.

  • There is a myth that the quality of food sold in Western Europe is better than that in the eastern and southern part of the continent. Do you think there is any basis for such claims?

As I said before, food quality is not a food safety issue per se and is therefore not part of EFSA’s remit so we do not assess it. Fraudulent food practices are similarly not dealt with by EFSA if the safety of the food is not at stake. National authorities are responsible for checking that companies operating in their markets do not engage in fraudulent practices such as mislabelling or any other deception of the consumer.

  • Can we say that BiH is sufficiently trained and meets European standards when it comes to food safety?

It is not really for me to comment on something that falls out of EFSA’s mandate. However, let me say that we are closely working with all IPA countries with a number of activities that cover the full range of EFSA’s remit. We are committed to continue supporting the European Commission in delivering these objectives with the aim of strengthening scientific cooperation and networking.

  • EFSA has been recognised in Bosnia and Herzegovina as one of the most proactive and distinguished of the EU agencies. What are likely to be key activities for EFSA in Bosnia and Herzegovina and  south-east Europe in the future?

Building capacity to generate scientific advice and perform data analysis is something that will continue to be important into the future. It is crucial to progressively increase the involvement of IPA countries in EFSA’s scientific cooperation activities – for instance in the area of animal health and welfare in line with the requirements of the Commission’s Farm to Fork Strategy- and networks. It is also important to give IPA countries the support they need to contribute to EFSA’s work before and after accession, particularly in the collection and exchange of harmonised food safety data.