The EFSA experience – remits, scientific boxes and frustrated NGOs

By Annie Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Is a human face what we really want from a scientific advisory board?
Is a human face what we really want from a scientific advisory board?

Related tags Efsa Docosahexaenoic acid

The European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) insistence on keeping well within its scientific box is both a source of frustration and comfort for onlookers.  

It’s no mean feat to ignore all context when you’re discussing such contentious issues as infant formula. Yet, sat in the meeting room at the organisation’s base in Parma, Italy, as EFSA's NDA (Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies) panel debates the exact wording of this sentence or the exact order of that section and a jet-lagged panel member stifles a late-afternoon yawn, you’d be forgiven for thinking contention never set foot through EFSA’s doors.

As I sat in that open plenary meeting last week I couldn’t help feel the NGO’s frustration as for the umpteenth time we were told, “this does not fall within EFSA’s remit” ​and again the difference between EFSA and the European Commission was explained.

This focus on the science and nothing but the science and a refusal to engage with policy wrangling is, I think, what makes EFSA both so frustrating and, dare I say it, reassuring for the associations, companies, NGOs government bods and trade press that follow its every movement.

Drawing a line

I can see how confusion between EFSA and the Commission might arise and clarification might sometimes be needed, but just because an issue is not within its remit does it mean it can’t engage with it? Panel members are after all experts in their fields with a wealth of experience and a plethora of different backgrounds. As somebody with an interest in the sector, I’d like to hear their opinion, even if that opinion won’t hold weight on paper.

We’re not all scientists. Some of us want a reason with warm blood in its veins, not black and white data and convoluted statements. God knows the issues debated are hot-blooded enough – EFSA decisions on safety and claims and recommended intakes can mean big business for some and big losses for others, and let’s not forget that it’s not all commercial. We’re talking about the foundations of public health policy, so EFSA’s take affects us all in Europe and there are not-for-profit stakeholders like NGOs and pressure groups in the mix too.

Be careful what you wish for

But, as we reach out to this organisation – distant both in location and ethos – should we ask ourselves if a human face is what we really want from a scientific advisory board?

As the panel’s chair said, there should be a clear line between scientific and moral judgement. It is of no relevance who funded the research, one panel member said. There is no evidence to support the effects of DHA omega-3 in infant formula beyond infant development, another added, a few years after EFSA approved a DHA claim for infants. There will always be a disappointed party and their decisions may not always be particularly fashionable, but better that than the curbing or ignoring of contrary data.

Still, it is quite annoying when someone won’t get out of their scientific box and onto the scientific soapbox and answer your question isn’t it? The panel may look at data as if it exists in a vacuum, and they may well be right to do that, but once that decision leaves those four EFSA walls its impact is far more elastic and perhaps we'd like to hear what they think about that. 

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EFSA's mission

Posted by John Efstathiou,

I agree with the author's comments. I truly believe that EFSA needs a new mission statement in other words the reason for its existence.

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Burden of Evidence

Posted by Ken,

If nothing else, the rejections of EFSA are teaching the dietary supplement industry at large what constitutes adequate evidence and what does not. It never fails to amaze onlookers at the number of flimsy evidence being presented to EFSA from companies one might have thought would know better. In the capacity of challenging the industry to require essential evidence for claims, EFSA is to be applauded. The US FDA is undoubtedly evaluating their model and taking note.

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