Mar 9, 2011
EFSA’s Executive Director: “If we exclude everyone who receives money from industry, we won’t have many experts left.”
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has come under fire. Its job is to assess the safety of food – including food from genetically modified crops – independently, using purely scientific criteria. Critics claim that the experts engaged in the risk assessments are too closely involved with the industry. In an interview with the German newspaper tageszeitung (taz) and in an official statement, EFSA’s Executive Director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, defends the authority’s methods, claiming that EFSA has an appropriate selection process to guarantee the independence of its scientific experts.
Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, Executive Director of EFSA.
EFSA was set up in 2002 as a central authority for food and feed safety within the EU. It is responsible for scientific risk assessments and relies on reports from twelve panels of experts which are responsible for specific areas, like additives, flavourings, pesticides, genetically modified foods, and animal and plant health. EFSA also coordinates the work of the national food safety authorities. It is based in Parma, Italy.
European consumers tend to be sceptical towards the central food safety authority. In surveys conducted last year, 40 per cent of consumers expressed doubts about the independence of the authority and its scientists. Individual members of the scientific panels, like the Chair of EFSA’s Scientific Panel on Genetically Modified Organisms, Harry Kuiper, are accused of being too closely associated with the industry. He is accused of having written papers for the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), which is largely financed by the industry. The Chair of EFSA’s Management Board, Diana Banati, a Hungarian, is also accused of a clear conflict of interests, since she was at the same time on the board of the International Life Sciences Institute. She only gave up her position at ILSI when this became public knowledge.
Around 300 experts are excluded from working with EFSA each year because of conflicts of interest
When producing reports on food safety issues, the European Food Safety Authority relies on external experts. These now include around 2500 scientific experts and 400 local scientific organisations. In her interview with tageszeitung (taz), EFSA’s Executive Director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, acknowledges that these experts have contact with companies in the industry. “We know that our experts work with industry to a greater or lesser extent.”
However, in view of the high quality standards required by EFSA, it was, she claimed, neither possible nor desirable to ban such contacts altogether. In the interests of European consumers, EFSA had to conduct food safety assessments to the highest possible scientific standards using the latest scientific findings. This could be ensured only if the authority was able to make use of leading scientists at universities and public research institutions.
In addition, European research policy encourages, and in some cases obliges, most leading researchers to work with industry. This not only improves funding for research, but also promotes the transfer of knowledge to industry and the development of new practical applications. Ms Geslain-Lanéelle believes that increasing constraints on public finances will cause a further rise in this trend in the future. “If we were to exclude all experts who had received money from industry at one time or another, we would not have many experts left.”
According to Ms Geslain-Lanéelle, this situation does not in principle call into question the independence of the experts or their reports, which is assured through a transparent selection process. All external experts have to present an annual declaration of interest listing all their activities that might have an influence on their work for EFSA. These include employment contracts and research projects for industry. In the event of a conflict of interests, experts are prevented from engaging in certain advisory activities or excluded entirely from working for EFSA. This occurred around 300 times in 2010.
However, Ms Geslain-Lanéelle also acknowledged that EFSA does not specifically search for experts with no industry background. Neither did she know how many experts there were on the EFSA panels who were in close contact with non-governmental organisations, claiming that EFSA selects its experts purely on the basis of their expertise and that its job is simply to protect the health of the population, regardless of commercial interests.