Show us the documents: NGO threatens EFSA with court action

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Related tags Efsa European union European food safety authority

NGO threatens EFSA with court action
Pesticide Action Network Europe (PAN) has said it will take the European Food Safety Authority to the European Court of Justice after the agency denied access to documents relating to its new science director, Juliane Kleiner, PhD.

The NGO claims the appointment of Kleiner last May presents a conflict of interest through her past work with the industry-backed International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). It says EFSA’s denial of two official requests for information on Kleiner’s appointment shows a discrepancy between its official policy on transparency and actual practice. As a result PAN says it will attempt to bring the case to the ECJ.

Responding to the development, EFSA said it is committed to transparency but is not in the position to hand over certain documents like Kleiner’s CV due to policies on confidentiality.

The exchange between the two organisations dates back to September last year when PAN made its first request for information, and culminated in a final rejection from EFSA at the end of January. PAN now says that as more six weeks has passed since its second request for information, it is entitled to take the issue to the Court of Justice. 

Transparency and representation

Based on its suspicions surrounding Kleiner's appointment, PAN requested access to 39 documents concerning her first appointment in March 2004, promotion to head of EFSA's nutrition unit in 2008, head of the scientific committee unit in March 2013 and science director just two months later, as well as all documents on Kleiner's communication with ILSI. 

In response EFSA said it could only grant access to the documents not in Kleiner's personal file. These granted documents included the job description of each role and Kleiner's thesis, but did not include things like her CV and any letters of correspondence between Kleiner and ILSI.  

It said that addressing requests for public access to documents requires by law a case-by-case assessment regarding the scope of the request and any exceptions which might apply to the documents requested. Jan Op Gen Oorth, EFSA's media relations officer told NutraIngredients: "EFSA needs to pay attention to ensuring consistency with such case law, and it needs to balance the individual rights of staff members, such as privacy and integrity, with EFSA’s broader commitment to transparency."

In its second letter to EFSA, PAN said: “As a European citizen, you have a right to know how the European institutions are preparing these decisions, who participates in preparing them, who receives funding from the EU budget, and what documents are held or produced to prepare and adopt the legal acts. You also have a right to access those documents, and make your views known, either directly, or indirectly, through intermediaries that represent you.”​ 

In the letter the organisation asks how EFSA can on the one hand profess to hold openness and transparency as a core value, and on the other allow only restricted access to documents.

“The rights of citizens and the general interest that organisations like PAN Europe have in transparency and disclosure of documents are acknowledged. The policy is clear but the implementation seems not to be in line with it. How can we participate in the decision-making process if we don’t receive documents made and used by the administration?”​ it asked.

A conflict of interest

The letter's author, PAN Europe chemical coordinator Hans Muilerman, told us that the NGO was concerned about the influence of Kleiner's work with ILSI on her ability to make fair judgements with public health, and not corporate profits, in mind. 

Op Gen Oorth responded to this saying Juliane Kleiner had worked at ILSI a long time ago and her appointement to the position of director of science strategy and coordination was on the basis of her performance at EFSA. He said that she has assessed more that 3,000 health claims since she began her work with the nutrition unit back in 2008. 

Rejecting the request for information concerning ISLI, EFSA said: "The need to put the institution in the conditions to be able to balance all the interests at hand, leads us to conclude that at this stage EFSA is not in the position to disclose to you the correspondence between Dr Kleiner and ISLI, unless you provide an express and legitimate justification in order to demonstrate the necessity for that personal data transferred to you." 

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