European Parliament cracks down on EFSA

Debates on EFSA’s budget and management board in the Environment and Budget committees of the European Parliament have demonstrated that MEPs remain critical of how conflicts of interest are dealt with by EFSA and by the European Commission.

On 27 March, the Budget committee voted on an excellent report by MEP Monica Luisa Macovei (PPE, Romania), proposing to postpone the approval of the 2010 budget of the European Food Safety Authority. Macovei stated that "conflicts of interest could .. have a negative impact on the impartiality of the decision-making process and also on the citizens' trust in the institutions". The vote in Plenary is scheduled on 10 May 2012. 

Corinne Lepage MEP (ALDE), a vocal critic of EFSA, said: "European agencies must immediately put an end to conflicts of interest that undermine democracy, their work and credibility of European decisions. They must define measures much stringency with controls and sanctions, to prevent private interests influence their work to serve the public interest.”

All amendments by Lepage, Parvanova (ALDE) and Staes (Greens), were adopted. Importantly, the amendments ask EFSA to consider participation in ILSI (International Life Sciences Institute, an industry lobby group) task forces by panel members to be a conflict of interests. Many EFSA panel members have such links with ILSI. And EFSA should not only rely on industry studies when assessing the risks of a product, but also take into account independent research.

The decision to postpone the discharge for the food safety Agency in Parma was taken with 15 votes in favour, 7 against and 4 abstentions. The postponement would allow the Parliament to take into account the report by the European Court of Auditors on conflicts of interest at EFSA, expected to be published in the second quarter of this year.

Nor does the Parliament go along with the European Commission’s idea to propose the chief food industry lobbyist for FoodDrinkEurope (FDE, previously called CIAA) and ex-Monsanto employee Mella Frewen as a candidate for the EFSA management board. The EFSA management board composition is entirely in the hands of the EU institutions, and the Parliament is asked for its opinion.

In a unanimous decision, the political groups decided to reject Frewen’s candidacy. Richard Seeber (Germany, PPE) said in ‘Die Presse’: “We reached agreement across all political groups that we don’t support this lady’s candidacy, because we assume that her closeness to Monsanto will inhibit her objectiveness”. Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said in EU Observer that Frewen was nominated "based on capability”. But Frewen is trained as a marine biologist, not in food safety. In response to a question by Corporate Europe Observatory, the Commission replied that Frewen's employment with Monsanto was not relevant "since it ended five years ago". 

EFSA’s founding regulation states that four members in the board should have a "background in organisations representing consumers and other interests in the food chain". But since EFSA is supposed to be the ‘independent voice of science’ and board members are supposed to act on personal title and in the public interest, nominating someone like Frewen is a completely irrational move.

The European Commission will start a revision of the founding regulation later this year, and a change of management board composition will be high on the agenda of civil society groups.