Three questions for Gilles Salvat, ANSES Managing Director General for Research and Reference

As Reference Delegation Day is held at ANSES, bringing together representatives of national and European reference laboratories, Gilles Salvat, Managing Director General for Research and Reference, gives us an overview of this essential part of ANSES's work.

What do you mean by reference?

Reference is an essential component of the system for safeguarding health. The work of the reference laboratories is vital to improving knowledge and identification of the major hazards we face in food safety, animal health and plant health.

On a routine basis, the national and European reference laboratories develop analytical methods, disseminate them to a network of accredited field laboratories, and then verify their ability to implement these analytical methods. The reference laboratories therefore ensure the dissemination of effective analytical methods that enable a prompt response in the event of a health crisis.

For example, ANSES's Laboratory for Animal Health is a national, European and international reference laboratory for foot-and-mouth disease. In the event of a suspected case of foot-and-mouth disease, the laboratory's scientific teams can be called on seven days a week, and can prepare an analytical method for confirming or disproving the case in less than four hours.

The development of effective methods ensures that the public authorities are always quick to react during the emergence or resurgence of pathogens. This ensures an efficient and responsive system for protecting health.

What is the role of the reference laboratories in the event of a health crisis?

The reference laboratories are often on the front line during health crises. Because they can rapidly detect emerging pathogens, they provide scientific and technical support that enables risk managers to take appropriate measures.

Two recent health crises illustrate the importance of these reference laboratories, both in France and at European level. During recent episodes of avian influenza, ANSES's Ploufragan Laboratory, which holds the national reference mandate for avian influenza, was able to determine whether the virus strains involved were low or highly pathogenic. The results of its analyses enabled the Ministry of Agriculture to take appropriate management measures.

More recently, as the European reference laboratory for Listeria, ANSES's Laboratory for Food Safety conducted analyses on a strain of Listeria monocytogenes that has been affecting five Member States of the EU (Austria, Denmark, Finland, Sweden and the United Kingdom) since 2015. These analyses helped trace the origin of this strain to frozen corn that was probably produced in Hungary and packaged in Poland. In this case, the scientific support provided by ANSES’s Laboratory proved invaluable for the European Food Safety Authority's management of this health crisis.

In what ways are research and reference linked in the Agency's activities?

ANSES has 65 national, nine European and 26 international reference mandates. The reference activities are a further asset for the Agency's health and safety missions. Anticipating the human health consequences of exposure to biological, physical or chemical agents, whether these are related to animal or plant diseases, or food or environmental contamination, is one of the fundamental roles of ANSES's laboratories.

Within these laboratories, the reference work complements the research activities carried out by the scientific teams. It is part of a continuous process calling on complementary skills, with the ultimate objective being to understand the phenomena by which food, animals or plants become contaminated. In the first place, our research work fosters the development of increasingly effective analytical methods. And our reference and surveillance activities contribute to the establishment of biological collections that are essential to research and risk assessment. For example, the Salmonella network helped detect the potential emergence of Salmonella Kentucky CipR, which is highly resistant to ciprofloxacin, and provided public policymakers with insights to halt its spread.

At Agency level, the reference activities also provide input for the risk assessments carried out by our expert groups: ANSES's reference laboratories ensure that the data and results they produce are made available to the experts responsible for risk assessment.
The close links between research, reference and risk assessment therefore ensure development of the most suitable tools for monitoring these pathogens. This in turn enables ANSES to address health issues with a comprehensive, cross-cutting approach, and to constantly improve its anticipation of risks. This ultimately strengthens the quality of the system for safeguarding consumer health.