A decisive year for food safety in the EU? Campaign update

2013 could be a decisive year for food safety in the EU. As some people might remember, activists from different organisations (including CEO) presented a broad set of demands last November in Parma to the doorstep of the EU's Food Safety Authority, EFSA. they called for a ban on its experts and management having a conflict of interest with industry, as well as for the use use of independent studies – rather than industry -conducted tests – to evaluate a products' safety. These two problems have been undermining EFSA's work since its creation. 

Not long after November's demonstration, EFSA took the initiative to organise a meeting in Brussels with the signatory organisations and the European Commission, in order to discuss the demands. This presented an interesting development in our dialogue with the EU institutions, which to date had seen then generally dismissing the very idea that there could be a problem in the EU food safety system. The meeting took place on 30 January.

However, while an unexpected dialogue may have been opened, problems with our food system and the way EFSA regulates it have far from disappeared:

  • Late November 2012, Genewatch (UK), Testbiotech (DE) and other organisations exposed how decisions on GM insects in Europe and around the world were being biased by corporate interests, with an EFSA working group involving several people with a clear interest in the development of GM insects. The draft guidance on risk assessment of GM insects produced by this working group showed significant deficiencies, these groups said.

  • Also, the way EFSA coordinated its assessment of the Séralini study on GM maize with other food safety agencies in Europe has been far from appropriate – whatever the study's limitations may have been, the assessment had more in common with a prosecution than an evaluation. This is in contrast to the minimal scrutiny shown to industry's studies.

  • Last December, an article in French newspaper Le Monde revealed that conflicts of interest existed among more than half of the members of EFSA’s working group on hormone disrupting chemicals (which include many pesticides), many of them with industry think-tank ILSI, financed by a large number of food and chemical companies.

  • French NGO Réseau Environnement Santé (RES) and senior food policy academic Pr. Erik Millstone both analysed EFSA’s recent draft opinion on aspartame (which claimed there was no reason to doubt its current ‘acceptable’ intake levels) and concluded that it was “deeply flawed”: the EFSA panel at stake (ANS) had clearly favoured industry studies (even copy-pasting from some of them) and dismissed independent literature, while at the same time involving several scientists with direct commercial and institutional conflicts of interest.

But on the other hand, for the first time ever, EFSA released (although in a non-usable format) key Monsanto documents backing its authorisation of GM maize NK603 into the public domain, something not at all to the liking of Monsanto. And since its working group on pesticides and bees concluded that indeed, there is a link between certain pesticides (neonicotinoids) and the current massive bees death, EFSA has found itself under attack from pesticide companies Syngenta and Bayer.

But back to our meeting with EFSA and the Commission: ILSI, a corporate lobby group whose mission is to influence the work of regulatory agencies worldwide, was a recurring topic. CEO explained how EFSA failed to act in a recent case of an expert holding a conflict of interest with ILSI (R. Franz), and both institutions made it clear that links between EFSA experts and ILSI in particular should be banned. The organisations present underlined the need to end ILSI's involvement in EFSA, showing that failing to turn words into action is already leaving a lasting legacy, such as the flawed GM risk assessment guidelines drafted by a biased EFSA GMO panel, unfortunately enshrined in EU law a few days ago.

This meeting, while positive, was clearly only a first step in a longer process to see to what extent EFSA was actually willing to change. Pressure is indeed mounting. EFSA’s budget is again under scrutiny by the European Parliament, which last September finally approved EFSA’s 2010 budget, but only under the condition that its conflict of interest policy be further improved. Rapporteur Gerbrandy (Liberals) and shadow rapporteurs are now making up their minds on whether to grant EFSA its budgetary discharge or not. CEO and Testbiotech wrote to both MEPs to inform them about the state of affairs at EFSA regarding conflicts of interest, and MEPs seemed well aware of the structural weaknesses in EFSA's set up , but put it down in part to lack of resources.

The Commission, in the meantime, is working to implement a "Roadmap on decentralised agencies" (24 specialised bodies, including EFSA) that it published in December 2012. The ambition is to have new guidelines for conflicts of interest established for all agencies by the end of this year. The Parliament will have no formal role to play, but will need to keep a critical eye on this process, seeing as weak guidelines would further delay any action taken by the agencies themselves. Guidelines should be particularly strong for agencies who play a role in the approval of products for market, like EFSA (food products), EMA (medicines) and ECHA (chemicals). These agencies are particularly targeted by industry influence.

Last year, there was still talk of revising EFSA's founding act. But the Commission got no further than discussing a proposal to introduce fees to be paid for by industry to EFSA for extra services. This has now been shoved off the table, which is good as this proposal would have worsened the problem of conflicts of interest. But an important reason why the proposal was dropped was that it would be detrimental to the European food industry's competitiveness! To exclude industry-linked people from the management board may also require a revision of EFSA’s founding act, although a different interpretation of the act might also do the job. The Commission's guidelines will now have to provide a solution for this.

Finally, a general problem that seems only to be getting bigger, and that will have major implications for the food safety system, is that the EU is intensifying its pressure on governments to cut budgets, while promoting public-private partnerships for research. This means less resources for public independent research into food safety. The ongoing negotiations over the EU's budget are key in that respect: 20 organisations such as the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU), the farmers' union La Via Campesina and the European Network of Scientists for Social and Environmental Responsibility (ENSSER) recently asked that foreseen cuts to the EU's 2014-2020 Research programme only affect those subsidies directed to industry, and that do not benefit the public interest.

It's clear that 2013 will see multiple developments on the food safety front. Any improvement will be strongly fought by the industry, so many's active involvement for public health and the environment will be required!