The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is an independent public agency that provides scientific advice and technical support for EU legislation in all fields that have a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety. Its mandate thus covers topics such as GMOs, pesticides or food contact materials. Although its work is essential for European lawmakers, in order for them to be able to draft legislation that protects consumers’ health, EFSA faces two recurrent criticisms, voiced by both civil society representatives and members of the European Parliament. They pertain to the agency’s questioned independence from the agro-food industry, as well as to the lack of transparency regarding its methods of analysis.
EFSA’s independence from the agro-food industry’s interests has indeed been questioned for many years, partly because many of its board members and panel scientists were or are still linked somehow to the food industry . Many NGOs as well as members of the European Parliament have therefore now and again made the case for stricter rules aimed at preventing dubious conflicts of interests, such as a two-year cooling-off period on financial conflicts of interests. Furthermore, loopholes in EFSA’s own rules to assess its experts’ potential conflicts of interests indeed exist: instead of looking at all the ties the expert may have with any given agro-food company, today only potential ties related to the specific panel the expert is assigned to are scrutinized.
In response to these allegations, EFSA has often claimed that it has become more and more difficult to find independent top-level scientists that have never been involved with the industry at some point in their career, while asking member States to recommend and promote more of them to EFSA. A reason behind this situation would be the lack of public investment in research throughout Europe, pushing scientists to go where funding lies, i.e. inside agro-food businesses’ research facilities. Furthermore, EFSA has undergone some changes  to try and tackle this issue partly by itself; however, they mainly failed to address it comprehensively and thoroughly, leading to the following statement by the European Parliament in April 2015, expressing it:
“strongly regrets that the main loopholes in the Authority’s implementing rules have not been closed [and once again asks EFSA to] apply a two-year cooling-off period to all material interests related to the commercial agri-food sector, including research funding, consultancy contracts and decision-making positions in industry-captured organizations”.
TRANSPARENCY OF EFSA’S OVERALL ASSESSMENT PROCESS
A second persistent reproach made by critics is that EFSA often elaborates its scientific opinions on the safety of additives, pesticides or GMOs using research and studies executed or sponsored by the agro-food companies, applying for market authorization of these products in the EU. Meanwhile, most files are kept secret through confidentiality agreements with regulators. Yet, as Corporate Europe Observatory researcher Martin Pigeon puts it:
“Transparency isn’t only needed to improve public confidence in EFSA’s work but also in order to ensure EFSA’s assessments are based on sound science. A fundamental principle of science is replicability: the methodology and results of the industry tests need to be made public so that other scientists can replicate the test and see if they get the same result. Yet apparently we are supposed to take industry’s results – which we can’t even see – on faith. This is unreliable and intolerable.”
Recently, this lack of transparency of EFSA’s evaluation process gained public attention when the agency was asked to assess the dangerousness of glyphosate, an active component of Monsanto’s Roundup, the world’s most-sold weed-killer. Published after the World Health Organisation’s claim that glyphosate is indeed carcinogenic, EFSA’s assessment was based on Germany’s Federal Institute for Risk Assessment’s own work, itself based largely on a contribution from the Glyphosate Task Force, a group of glyphosate producers.
In this respect, the reliance of EFSA’s assessment process on documents that are often kept secret to the public’s eyes casts doubts on the validity of said-process. As long as EFSA will rely on the work of others for its own assessments, there will be a need for complete and voluntary transparency on its part, in order to strengthen public confidence.
1) For instance, in 2010, then-president of EFSA’s executive board Diana Banati was also a board member of the International Life Science Institute, an association regrouping some of the biggest firms in the industry, such as Danone, Nestlé and Coca-Cola. In 2013,Unhappy Meal, a report by the Corporate Europe Observatory, claimed that at the time two thirds of EFSA’s panel scientists had at least one conflict of interests. Lastly, the nomination of Ms Barbara Gallani as EFSA’s communication’s director raised criticisms from several NGOs, as she was still working when nominated as chief scientist of the Food and Drink Federation, the food industry’s trade federation in the UK.
2) In March 2012, EFSA has communicated implementing rules related to Declarations of Interest, aimed at strengthening existing procedures for managing and screening interests declared by those involved in EFSA’s activities. In July 2014, EFSA published a slightly modified version of its independence policy: its staff members now have to file a Declaration of Interest, and submit to a pre and post-employment screening. There was also the prevision to create an advisory body on independence issues. In October 2015, EFSA presented its follow-up report to the European Parliament and explained that it refused the Parliament’s demand, considering that its current independence policy “guarantees a robust and sophisticated way to avoid potential conflicts”. However, the agency promises to introduce two-year cooling-off periods for certain interests of experts working in EFSA panels.