Recent press reports have fingered declared COI among members of EFSA’s Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA), as provokers of bias, with Flynn’s Kraft role cited as influencing the positive opinion the food giant won in the summer linking breakfast biscuits containing slowly digestible starch and glycaemic response.
But minutes from meetings where the Kraft application were discussed reveal professor Flynn had no input into the article 13.5 opinion as he exempted himself due to the COI, as is EFSA policy.
Minutes from a June 28-30, 2011, plenary meeting show, “Albert Flynn declared an interest and withdrew from the chair and refrained from discussion for this agenda item.”
The Kraft opinion can be found here.
Such declarations are common among NDA and other panel members. At the same plenary, NDA panelists Seppo Salminen and Hannu Korhonen withdrew from discussions due to COI from a Valio peptide submission that would ultimately be rejected.
Lack of understanding
“It is not uncommon for high-level academic experts to be in contact with industry so these bias stories show a lack of understanding about how risk assessment is carried out and about the nature of COI,” said EFSA spokesperson Luca DeLuca.
“EFSA always welcomes scientific discussion of our opinions but unfounded accusations of bias serve no one’s interest. Albert Flynn had no input into the Kraft opinion.”
Patrick Coppens, the secretary general of the European Responsible Nutrition Alliance (ERNA), a group that has been a vocal critic of many of the NDA’s health claims assessment methodologies, defended the agency in dismissing any accusations of bias.
“It is not surprising that leading academics participate in corporate meetings,” Coppens said of professor’s Flynn’s role as a Kraft advisory board member. He noted that even if professor Flynn had given input into the Kraft opinion, it did not necessarily mean it would contain bias.
“So he sits on the advisory board of Kraft. Does that mean a scientific person will give up the independence and lose judgment? I don’t think so. Professor Flynn is a dedicated scientist who would not be influenced by individual companies. Academics like him sit on NGO boards too and that is all part of a healthy interaction between academia and the broader society.”
A full list of NDA panel member declarations of interest can be found here.
The bias criticisms have come in from the likes of Timo Lange of LobbyControl who said in press reports that COI declarations aside, it was not appropriate for the head of the EU health claims panel to have Big Food links of any kind.
“It’s just not acceptable that representatives of an industry whose products are to be assessed are sitting in just that agency that’s supposed to assess them,” Lange said.
Others have highlighted NDA COI with the International Life Sciences Institute Europe (ILSI) including the French broadsheet, Le Monde, and the German press. Such reports prompted EFSA executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, to take the somewhat unusual decision to write a letter to the German publication, Suedduetsche, after it published a story alleging NDA bias on October 27, 2011.
“We recognise however that it can be far easier to challenge the messenger, rather than the science itself. EFSA’s scientific panels deliver their scientific opinions without fear or favour,” Geslain-Lanéelle wrote.
“If EFSA had industry interests in mind – as your article affirms – would its panels have rejected 80% of the functional health claims proposed for food labelling and advertising on the grounds that these are not scientifically substantiated…?”
She noted the agency had instigated a 10-week online public consultation about improving its transparency and fairness, “that culminated in a public meeting in Brussels which was attended by a wide range of stakeholders and other interested parties, including non governmental organisations.”
The Alliance of Natural Health (ANH) executive and scientific director, Dr Robert Verkerk, acknowledged that NDA panelists opted out of meetings where COI were concerned, but added: “Given the weight of big business within EFSA's expert pool, the real problem for European citizens is the nature of the scientific opinions issued. They nearly always benefit big business at the cost of small businesses, with public health tending to be somwhere down the list of priorities. An independent inquiry by a group of universities over the scientific quality of EFSA's work across its various panels would make interesting reading."