Analysis: Can EFSA ever cut ties with industry?

By David Burrows

- Last updated on GMT

MEPs last week said they were “convinced the authority should be endowed with a sufficient budget to hire independent in-house experts with no conflicts of interest”. ©iStock
MEPs last week said they were “convinced the authority should be endowed with a sufficient budget to hire independent in-house experts with no conflicts of interest”. ©iStock

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The consultation for a new policy on independence at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) draws to a close this week and campaigners have told FoodNavigator that the final document won’t be worth the paper it’s written on

“My problem is that they pretend to be independent from the food industry, but they’re not,”​ explained Martin Pigeon, researcher and campaigner on agribusiness issues at Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO). “You can spend ten minutes looking at a panel and come up with a scandal.”

Pigeon has published a circumscribed list of them​. It starts with the Bánáti affair in September 2010, in which the chair of EFSA’s management board, Diána Bánáti, reportedly failed to mention that she was also on the board of ILSI, a non-governmental body largely funded by food, chemical and pharma companies. There was no evidence that the links with ILSI influenced her actions at EFSA, but it did raise a “perception issue”,​ admitted the authority’s executive director at the time, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. Lessons were learned, she said. “Public perception is important; we need trust.”

But since then, EFSA has found itself mired in scandal after scandal; and most involve industry ties that for campaigners – and increasingly the public and politicians – are too close for comfort. Consider the investigation by CEO in October 2013 – and picked up across the world – that showed almost 60% of EFSA experts have “at least one conflict of interest”​; experts with conflicts of interest also dominated all but one of the authority’s panels.

Claim and counterclaim

Some have suggested it’s a witch-hunt. In April, the authority’s executive director Bernard Uhl, told Reuters that his team is facing unprecedented criticism after concluding that glyphosate – the world’s most widely used herbicide – was “unlikely”​ to pose a carcinogenic risk to humans. The European Agency for Chemical products (ECHA) has since agreed with this appraisal. ​However, it remains at odds with the findings of the International Agency for Research on Cancer – that glyphosate is “probably carcinogenic”

Glyphosate is one of the very few scientific opinions EFSA has issued in the past 15 years that has been challenged (and there have been 8,000 or so of them), Uhl explained in the interview.​ Those attempting to discredit his agency over the assessment are thus undermining science to pursue a “political agenda”.

Others maintain that there is no smoke without fire. Just last week, an investigation by EU Observer and Dutch magazine OneWorld​ revealed that EFSA’s glyphosate evaluation relied on scientific evidence that was written or influenced by Monsanto, which uses the chemical in its leading weedkiller Roundup.

EFSA played down the investigation, but with every negative headline trust in the authority erodes further. A 2010 Eurobarometer survey​ commissioned by EFSA found that 64% of Europeans were confident about the information issued by both EFSA and national food safety agencies. What would the result be today?

Uncertain science

research lab science biotech iStock shironosov
EFSA’s new policy on independence and scientific decision-making is an opportunity to kick-start a new era of openness. ©iStock/shironosov

The European Commission is certainly aware of the challenge it faces to restore trust in ‘the system’ following controversies linked to just a handful of substances. In March, a group of green MEPs writing about glyphosate highlighted that the commission had held an internal expert meeting entitled ‘possible improvements to the integrity of academic laboratory testing and reproducibility’. They also noted that the EU’s executive branch “specifically referred to ‘selective reporting of results, pressure of academics to publish, and lack of standardisation of reference measurement procedures and reference materials’.”

There is little doubt some of the issues have become political. The assessments are also fiercely complicated and can be simplified and sensationalised by parts of the media – as the health and food safety commissioner noted in October.“In most of these science-related issues, people tend to look for ‘black and white’ answers where almost always a degree of ‘grey’ — of uncertainty — is inevitable,” ​said Vytenis Andriukaitis.This uncertainty can sow the seeds of doubt in people’s minds and can be exploited by the media to sensationally highlight certain risks.”

Improved communication and greater transparency would certainly help nip some of the criticisms and controversies in the bud; which makes EFSA’s new policy on independence and scientific decision-making the perfect opportunity to kick-start a new era of openness.

An era of openness

The definition of conflict of interest, cooling off periods and transparency are all up for review; a public consultation is also open until the end of this week (May 5, 2017) and a draft proposal was published earlier this year. But campaigners have told FoodNavigator that they expect very little to change. “EFSA has to demonstrate some basic will [to cut its ties with industry], but I’m not very hopeful,” ​explained CEO’s Pigeon.

On the plus side, the new draft​ does include a two-year cooling-off period for “all managerial roles, employment and consultancies, even of an occasional nature”. ​However, this still leaves a gaping loophole, Pigeon explained: EFSA will only assess experts’ interests according to the specific mandate of the panel they want to join or are already a member of.

This also puts it at odds with the European Parliament, which has repeatedly demanded a comprehensive cooling-off period for experts. Indeed, last week MEPs on the committee for budgetary control called on EFSA to incorporate into its new independence policy a two-year cooling-off period for all material interests related to the companies whose products are assessed by the authority and to any organisations funded by them”.

The committee also said​ it “regrets”​ that the authority has not included research funding in the list of interests to be covered by the two-year cooling-off period and called on EFSA to “swiftly implement the measure in line with the discharge authority's repeated requests”.

An EFSA spokesman told FoodNavigator that the authority has a “robust system in place to safeguard its independence” ​and “welcomes all contributions”​ to its policy review process.

Some would argue that a more contributions from the EU’s coffers wouldn’t go amiss either.

The European Border Agency, Frontex, has double the budget EFSA has, Pigeon explained, and is “paying the price of political priorities”. ​This lack of resources explains why it is industry experts that often end up sitting on panels (positions are unpaid). MEPs last week said they were “convinced the authority should be endowed with a sufficient budget to hire independent in-house experts with no conflicts of interest”. ​This would help develop a public interest ethos, cut ties with industry and remove EFSA from the public microscope. “The independence of experts that will look at data offered by industry is the only credibility EFSA has left,”​ said Pigeon. “It has to get that right.”

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