Almost 60% of experts sitting on the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) panels have direct or indirect links with industries regulated by the agency, according to an independent screening performed by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and freelance journalist Stéphane Horel.
The report “Unhappy Meal. The European Food Safety Authority's independence problem”identifies major loopholes in EFSA's independence policy and finds that EFSA's new rules for assessing its experts, implemented in 2012 after several conflicts of interest scandals, have failed to improve the situation.
The authors warn that this situation casts a severe doubt on the credibility of the scientific output of the key body responsible for food safety at the EU, with the agency issuing recommendations and risk assessments on crucial public health issues such as food additives, packaging, GMOs, contaminants and pesticides.
The main loophole identified in EFSA's new rules for assessing its experts' interests is that the agency's assessment is too narrow, mainly looking at the panel's specific remit to determine whether there are conflicts of interest. Instead it should consider experts' wider conflicts of interest, in line with the agency's broader mandate to guarantee its decisions remain independent from the industry it regulates. The current approach enables dozens of experts with multiple commercial interests (consultancy contracts, research funding, etc) to still be granted full membership of EFSA panels, including a majority of panel chairs and vice-chairs.
Main author Stéphane Horel said : “We were shocked by our findings. Even without checking for undeclared interests, the number of conflicts of interest in this agency is very worrying. Experts with conflicts of interest dominate all panels but one. We found that the bulk of conflicts are from research funding and private consultancy contracts, but certain crucial institutions for scientists (scientific societies, journals) are also targeted by industry lobbying, and EFSA seems to ignore this”.
The report also shows that EFSA failed to properly implement its own new rules in several instances, and that there is no visible difference between panels assembled under the new policy and those composed using the old policy.
Martin Pigeon, researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, said: “Despite indications of a new willingness to tackle the problem, EFSA seems not to have learnt from its previous mistakes. There are specific cases the agency was warned about years ago which remain a problem. The system in place is very resource-intensive, yet its flaws prevent it from keeping industry interests at bay. EFSA is also paying the price of EU and national research policy flaws but it should not use this as an excuse to allow such a situation to persist. It must defend the public interest. We hope this report is an eye-opener on the necessity to defend public research integrity from the threats posed on public health by industry influence”.
The report lists recommendations in the short, medium and long term that if implemented could help design a system that is more resistant against commercial pressures and closer to normal scientific practice.