European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) And Its Conflict Of Interest Recruitment Policy
Excerpts from an article by Corporate Europe Observatory: Its motto is “trusted science for safe food” – But year after year the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has been hit by conflicts of interest scandals. Conflict of interests still abound in EFSA’s panels, with nearly half (46%) of current experts on EFSA panels in a financial conflict of interests, according to our assessment.
For four years in a row, the European Parliament has demanded that EFSA becomes independent from the food industry. On 21 June 2017, the agency’s Management Board will vote new independence rules for the agency’s experts. Given the agency’s reluctance to change, the situation will not really improve.
EFSA’s mission is to provide independent scientific advice to the European institutions on food safety matters. Assessing the risks related to industry products represents about two thirds of its workload.
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In 2013 Corporate Europe Observatory performed a systematic assessment of all EFSA panels, and found that almost 60 percent of EFSA’s experts had direct and/or indirect financial interests with companies whose products the Authority was assessing. These include products European citizens put in their shopping baskets and feed to their families every day.
Conflict of interest scandals have kept erupting regularly (on most issues but in particular food additives, pesticides, GMOs, nutrition recommendations…) ever since NGOs and the media discovered that EFSA’s independence policy was, essentially, dysfunctional.
Despite commitments by the agency to improve his recruitment, which is only slightly better: the proportion of experts with a financial conflict of interest has only gone down from 59% to 46%.
Unless the agency’s Board takes serious ownership of developing the new independence policy – which thus far has clearly been steered by EFSA’s management to keep business as usual at the agency – it is highly unlikely to be fit for purpose.
The reason for this situation is simple: EFSA has few resources and has always prioritised excellence over independence. However, this is a false dichotomy: for a public food safety regulator, excellence is impossible to reach without independence from the food industry.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible to preserve both EFSA’s integrity and access to the best expertise by inviting the broadest range of experts, including those from industry, to dedicated hearings, but leaving the deliberation and writing phases of EFSA’s scientific opinions to independent experts. It is difficult to understand why EFSA’s management has not opted for such a system, in place for instance at the International Agency for Research Against Cancer and whose robustness has been demonstrated in the recent glyphosate drama.
The European Parliament has demanded every year for the past four years that when EFSA appoints new experts, as a matter of principle, it respects a two-years cooling-off period for financial interests in all regulated companies (and organisations funded by them).
But EFSA’s management has been opposed to the idea from the very start. Today, all the signals we receive from this agency are that it simply will not do it.
Financial conflicts of interest in EFSA’s scientific panels
In July 2015, EFSA renewed its panels (panels are appointed for three years). It described its new experts by announcing that “many of them come from universities and research institutes”. Did this mean that these new panels are, on average, more independent from companies EFSA exists to regulate?
Indeed, EFSA is not any scientific organisation but a public regulatory agency, whose assessment means life or death in the EU for regulated products in the agribusiness and food industries. Following the financial interests of its external experts points to many structures and tactics industry uses to make sure EFSA says the ‘right’ thing.
Our updated assessment shows not much has improved: the proportion of financial conflicts of interest has remained very high. 46% of panel members have at least one financial conflict of interest with a regulated company. Among the experts composing the 2015-2018 EFSA panels, 52% are re-appointments.
Strikingly, the proportion of experts with conflicts of interest in 2013 among these re-appointments is almost exactly the same as the general proportion of experts with conflicts of interest in 2012-2015 (59%).
Many scientists with financial conflicts of interests have been re-appointed by EFSA, including in senior positions (chair, vice-chair, scientific committee). Among the members of EFSA’s 2015-2018 panels, 52% were already there in 2012-2015 but strikingly, the proportion of experts who had COIs in 2013 among these is almost exactly the same as the general proportion of experts with COIs in the 2012-2015 panels (59%). Independence doesn’t seem to have been a criteria when deciding whether to re-appoint former experts.
30.3% of EFSA experts are in an indirect financial COI situation (they belong to an organisation receiving more than 20% of its funding from regulated interests in the past 5 years), 26.5% in a direct financial COI situation (they have received money from regulated interests in the past 5 years) and more than 16% of experts have both direct and indirect financial COIs.
The UK stands out for the difficulty to find EFSA experts from this country who are independent from the private sector. The government privatised its own national food safety and environment laboratory in 2015, FERA, which is now FERA Science Ltd, works for commercial clients too; and the private sector is largely steering the allocation of public research funds for research in agriculture and food, through extensive industry interests present at the Biotechnology and Biological Sciences Research Council.
The EFSA should not hire any expert who would have received money from any company whose products are evaluated by the agency for the past two years. Nor, importantly, any organisation receiving money from such companies. In particular, research funding should be included in the scope of the assessment of experts’ interests.
Financial conflicts of interest are tangible, measurable, and their influence is well documented: excluding them from the panels would be a very clear and meaningful policy. But intellectual conflicts of interest, with the exception that experts should not be allowed to review their own work, are by nature impossible to avoid (we all have our own biases). Furthermore, the very principle of regulating individual opinions is dangerous for political rights. The most convincing approach to tackle the problem seems collegiality: making sure there is a diverse range of expertise and opinions available on the panel.
Read the full report with detailed analysis, extensive evidence and links READ HERE