EP Information, 23 February 2006
"Fear is the daughter of ignorance", said Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle at her hearing by the Committee on the Environment, Public Health and Food Safety on 23 February. In other words, she is keen to improve communication on food hazards and promote "a sort of pedagogy" on food safety - and this just when a hint of panic is in the air because of bird flu.
Mrs Geslain-Lanéelle was nominated on 10 February by the board of the European Food Safety Agency to succeed Geoffrey Podger as executive director. Mrs Geslain-Lanéelle, who was chosen from among candidates pre-selected by the European Commission via a competition, is already vice-president of the board of the agency and also regional director of Agriculture and Forestries in Ile de France. Before being officially appointed she was required to undergo today's hearing at the European Parliament.
Among her general plans, Mrs Geslain-Lanéelle cited her wish to strengthen the internal organisation, reactive capacity and reliability of the agency, which is based in Parma . However, as she said several times, "the agency has not yet built up a full head of steam; it is still in the development stage". Other general objectives are to encourage dialogue with risk managers, set up effective networks with the Member States, develop the international credibility of the agency and strengthen ties with the European Parliament. She repeatedly stressed the need to develop harmonised risk assessment methods in conjunction with national agencies.
MEPs pushed for direct answers to certain questions. Regarding the independence of the 300 scientific experts who work each day for the agency, the candidate promised to be attentive. To MEPs who referred to certain controversial cases, she said "just because an expert has worked one day with industry, does not mean it is utterly impossible for him to sit on one of our panels". On the question of total transparency in the experts' discussions, she saw this as a "legitimate" concern of MEPs but said she had "reservations" about it, as she was keen to ensure that discussions ran smoothly and to avoid pressure. She pointed out that it was up to the board to decide. As to the potential influx of GMOs onto the European market, she emphasised that the agency's role consisted, under current EU law, of assessing risks in the files submitted to it. However, this had not prevented the agency from deciding itself to look at the question of GMO-related allergies.
The Environment Committee is examining, at second reading, a regulation on food health claims (such as "low cholesterol" or "rich in vitamins"). The Council has reintroduced a requirement to include a nutritional profile (fat, sugar and salt content) on products which use such claims, and it would be up to the agency to establish these profiles. But will the agency have the resources? "This would be a huge task", replied Mrs Geslain-Lanéelle. "It would have to be reflected in the resources allocated to the agency in the 2007-2013 budget".
The chair of the Environment Committee, Karl-Heinz Florenz ( EPP-ED , DE ), will forward his committee's assessment of the candidate to the President of Parliament, Josep Borrell, next week