European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) Conference 2018: “Science, Food, Society”

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September 18 - 21, 2018, Parma, Italy

By Lauren Tuchman

This Fall EFSA hosted their annual conference in Parma, Italy. The attendees numbered upwards of one thousand and were a diverse group made up of national and international organizations, EU bodies, stakeholder organizations, research institutes, consumer groups, and food safety agencies. This was a four-day event and while the general theme focussed on the dynamic power and relationship cause and effect between ‘science, food, and society’ —the title of the event— more specific discussion centered on the role of: “contextualizing risk assessment,” which was the motto of the conference. This motto played out throughout the conference in the exploration of the role of risk assessment within science, and its interplay in human health, environment, nutrition, biological hazards, etc. Additionally, there were prominent discussions involving the concept of designing and projecting for the future, and managing current evidence whilst concurrently actively engaging with society.

Bernhard Uhl, EFSA's executive director, called attention to the “power of collaboration.” This sentiment started the conference and was also expressed post-conference where he stressed that we must, “collaborate, collaborate, collaborate, and engage with society .” According to Uhl in his post-conference wrap-up: “It is not enough to have good science. We have to not only communicate about the science, it's really about showing our accountability; we are accountable for what we do, we are open for this accountability, we want to show it to the citizens, and we wanted to have the citizen’s view also on what we do, how the context is. It could be and it will be a win-win situation.”

I found the conference and conference structure generally interesting and well-planned. There with opportunity for discussion and engagement amongst attendees during pauses of break-out sessions and at the poster exhibits and poster pitches that continued after the main days' events. I thought it was good to see that there were no pads of paper/pens dispersed for note-taking, etc., as the new paper-free approach has been adopted by EFSA, which of course is something that bodes well as a sustainable and environmentally-conscious action. However, I was disappointed to observe the food selection chosen for the attendees during the coffee breaks and pauses, which was not very healthy. While granted there were fruits to choose from, there were many ‘snack’ cake/bread/high starch-sugar products, as well as packaged, artificial products offered. This could have been a good opportunity for EFSA to put health-first and to potentially offer more nutritious options— even if in the form of snacks. This, to me, was reflective of a larger picture and model that I feel we, as a society, should be sensitive to and break-free from: There should not be a separation between interactive dynamic discussion and actual life practice. We cannot only speak of doing positive for the Health of society; we must also create options where we can facilitate this when we have the choice to do so.

Further thoughts and details on conference content:

The opening plenary focussed on putting risk assessment in context—i.e. where science meets society. However, it was clear from the get-go that this is not an easy task. Previous concerns had been voiced over the issue of ‘credibility’ and ‘trust’ in risk assessment, and so it became evident that the focus on this topic was an attempt to restore faith in these factors. What strikes me as interesting is that this initiative, on the whole, is a difficult one as ‘society’ is a culturally diverse, non-homogenous group. There are different values and different vantage points. Agendas, research and development strategies, political initiatives (and the subsequent amount of monetary backing and/or funding and political ties associated with each) is not always apparent. We, as both a macro collective and on the micro level as individuals, must not only decide who to trust but also what constitutes credible information and information sources. My personal opinion is that this quite challenging— especially so for the layman and those without scientific or medical backgrounds.

The discussions on the second and third day focused on advancing risk assessment science, managing evidence, engaging with society, and envisioning the expertise of the future. During the second day there were four break-out sessions, in which experts discussed the future of risk assessment as it was related to nutrition, the environment, human health, and biological hazards. More specific topics were the role of the ecosystem in environmental risk assessment, advances (and challenges) in human health risk assessment (a discussion which was continued on the following day), and the switch from nutrient deficiencies to addressing the double burden of nutrition, where diseases of both deficiency and diseases of excess exist concurrently.

Within the topic of Nutrition: This was an interesting session in that in addition to the statements about the double burden of nutrition, it was also mentioned that there has been a paradigm switch in the dietary guidelines from a nutritional deficiency focus to newer dialogue accounting for growing diseases of excess — which are increasingly affecting populations within developing countries. Due to this, and as a general observation, it was suggested that it is important to focus on food and food patterns, not merely single nutrients as had been the method and approach in the past.

Additionally, there was a discussion about the amount of added sugar in beverages and the sugar taxes that are circulating and have either passed (i.e., the UK Sugar Tax 2018) and or are being legislated for (or against). While some speakers stressed the importance of reducing excess consumption, others focused on the need to either eliminate and or lower the amount of sugar or refined carbohydrates in food products. What I found quite interesting with this discussion is that frequently when companies comply with such demands dictated either by legislation or by the public, they wind up reformulating products and, in doing so, do not necessarily create a healthier option. Rather, they merely swop one issue for another. In my opinion, one of the classic examples of this is that in an effort to reduce calories and sugar content, artificial sweeteners are often introduced to food or drink ingredient lists. There is a plethora of research available — which has been available for many years no less— that indicates and gives evidence of the detriments to human health that these artificial induce. However, because the artificial item reduces the need for sugar and or refined sugar, it is a viable option because it solves the problem of ‘lowering the calorie and sugar content of products’. This is also the case and can be viewed when looking at fat substitutes, etc. I found it interesting that while some speakers suggested lowering sugar, carbohydrate, or fat content in food and drink formulations, they in turn did not produce viable, healthy alternatives/options for how to do so without synthetic or toxic substances!

In my opinion, one of the most significant comments of the session was made by Dariush Mozaffarian, (Dean of the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University), who clearly stated: “Diet has now surpassed tobacco as the number one cause of poor health!” This is something very important to think about and take note of.

Within the topic of Human Health Assessment: Niger Walker offered some interesting discussion points on the integration of different data types. He also spoke about making better use of federal research funding by, for example, suggesting that Europe could potentially create resources such as a central database. Such a database could then be maintained and serve as a resource for long-term use as longevity in this type of situation is key. Thorhallur I Halldorsson (University of Iceland), discussed the concept of ‘dose-response’ and the need for human studies as compared to animal studies. [It is interesting to note that EFSA’s existing guidelines are designed specifically for controlled animal studies not humans studies.] One further statistic presented during this discussion session that I found quite interesting is that there has been consistent reduction in and availability of the amount of properly trained toxicologists. This, of course, can have calamitous effects especially if there are substances/products or areas where experts in this field are needed to ensure the safety of the population!

Within the topic of Transparency: I believe it is important to note that this need extends well beyond merely making data available. The initiative must include and give weight to the importance of providing context and information that also helps those other than scientists (the general public, laymen, etc.) understand the data. Additionally, the concept of transparency could benefit from the public having clearer understanding of the impetus and reasoning around research or, for that matter, reasons behind lack of research on given topics.

Within the topic of Participation and Societal Engagement: Engagement within the EU and among stakeholders is one that should receive more attention. I think one of the most significant questions we should continually ask ourselves is: “Is the power equally shared”? And, more so: “If the power is unequally distributed, who gets the short end of the stick?” In many cases, citizen involvement and non-profit organizations are often less heard than big business and larger for-profit stakeholders. This is why there needs to not only be discussion and education, but also a lack of demarcation between talk and action. It is important to ‘do’ to ‘involve’ and not merely just to theorize. ANME was pleased to attend this event to present a voice from the NGO side, from the vantage point that health-first, education, and historically-based methods and traditions serve a purpose in coming up with cohesive and sustainable solutions for the health and wellness of our national and international communities.

EFSA has published the conference videos, which cover all speakers on all four days. Many interesting talks and discussion are presented and many are just 20 minutes. I encourage having a look through the more specific presentations or even presentation headlines/program or abstracts. All such information including webcast recordings, slides are contained herein: ↗