Conflicts on the menu: a decade of industry influence at the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA)

Publication date: 
Tuesday, February 14, 2012
Corporate Europe Observatory and Earth Open Source

This report comes as EFSA, which celebrates its 10th anniversary this year, is under scrutiny from the European Court of Auditors, MEPs, and is undergoing an official evaluation by the European Commission.

In this report Corporate Europe Observatory (steering committee member of ALTER-EU) and Earth Open Source (signatory of ALTER-EU), show that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) relies on industry data and industry-linked experts to assess food safety, which raises serious questions about the independence of its advice.

The report calls for stronger selection criteria for experts that would ban conflicts of interest with industry and for an urgent overhaul of the EU laws that dictate how EFSA operates, including the use of industry data for safety tests. Too often independent scientists are not even able to challenge industry tests because the substance is considered commercially confidential information.

The ‘revolving door’ is a popular way for industry to influence the political agenda and decisionmaking in Brussels. As set out in the so-called 'Staff Regulations', EU staff members are supposed to ask for approval from their institutions before they accept any new post within two years of leaving office.

There are serious concerns that staff from the EU institutions, including EFSA, are not always aware of these obligations and that some staff are excluded from consideration under the rules. EFSA has become embroiled in several revolving doors scandals.

Executive summary / policy recommendations: 

Key points from the report:

- EFSA adopted concepts generated by industry-funded lobby group ILSI that have weakened safety assessments for chemicals and genetically modified crops.

- EFSA largely bases its assessments of risky products on ‘industry science’ that is often neither peer-reviewed nor published.

- EFSA ignores or dismisses independent scientific findings of harm from products and substances it assesses.

- EFSA undermined a democratically established law that insisted it take on board the findings of independent science in its risk assessments.

- EFSA ignored the warnings of independent science on the food packaging chemical bisphenol A, the sweetener aspartame, and the weedkiller glyphosate (the main ingredient of Roundup).

- EFSA gave in to a request from Monsanto to raise the residue limit for glyphosate in lentils 100-150-fold, to a level nearly six times the safe level established by independent scientific studies.

- EFSA has frequently relied on industry science, not independent science, to set ‘safe levels’ for risky substances - EFSA is dangerously under-equipped to deal with an ever-increasing workload.

- EFSA experts are not paid but are volunteers who have to go through vast amounts of industry data in their spare time - EFSA does not verify declarations of interest. When interests are found that have not been declared, EFSA does not intervene. New examples relate to the food packaging panel.

- The EU is about to incorporate into official EU regulation the discredited 'comparative assessment' method of GMO safety assessment that was originated by ILSI insider and EFSA GMO Panel head Harry Kuiper. A stakeholder meeting on this topic will be held in Brussels on Tuesday 14 February. This shows how the EU and EFSA work in tandem to let industry make the rules.

- The European Court of Auditors’ report on EFSA is expected to come out in March.

- The European Commission is planning to revise EFSA’s founding regulation in the second half of this year and in preparation has started an official evaluation of EFSA.

- Eight out of 10 EFSA panels are up for renewal. Decisions will be taken at next management board meeting in mid-March. On 5 March, EFSA will publish its new implementing rules on conflicts of interest, but not much new is expected.

- MEPs will discuss EFSA again on 24 March (budget committee).

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