The measures are a response to criticism that the EU agency has often relied on industry expertise in its evaluations of products, including the safety of genetically modified crops.
Agency officials described the independence policy as a prioritising and consolidation of existing guidelines rather than a major overhaul of standards.
“It’s not new, it’s new that we put it up-front explicitly,” Dirk Detken, head of legal affairs for EFSA, told EurActiv.
“This is not going to lead to a complete overhaul of the experts we have working at EFSA right now,” he said. Terms for members of the agency’s scientific committee and eight expert panels expire in July.
But clearly the agency is strengthening oversight in response to outside criticism. For example, for the first time EFSA will perform random audits of disclosure forms submitted by scientific experts to determine potential conflicts of interest.
In addition, EFSA’s independence policy seeks to promote the use of expertise from national food safety agencies to help in assessments.
A statement by the Parma, Italy-based agency says its rules are aimed at ensuring “independence and integrity throughout all areas of the Authority’s governance and work”. These include:
- Consolidation into a single document of disclosure standards for EFSA managers as well as contractors and grant recipients.
- A ban on experts employed by industry from serving on EFSA scientific panels related to their work.
Detken said the decade-old EU agency is “really, really open to disclosing the basis of our decision-making”.
Funding reform possible
The announcement did not address one criticism of EFSA, that it is beholden to the companies it is supposed to be overseeing because it lacks an independent source of revenue to finance evaluations of commercial products.
A recent report by two campaign groups, the Corporate Europe Observatory and the Earth Open Source, documents cases where EFSA uses industry scientists and information in risk assessments saying its EU-funded budget - nearly €77 million in 2011 - is not adequate for the safety and regulatory work it does.
Among its recommendations, the ‘Conflicts on the menu’ report calls for assessments to be done by independent laboratories paid with public funds rather than industry resources or development of a fee system that can fund independent evaluations.
The Commission is weighing a fee-based scheme that industries would pay when they submit products for approval, a scheme similar to the way the London-based European Medicines Agency finances evaluations of pharmaceutical products.
Huber Deluyker, director of the science strategy and coordination unit at EFSA, defended the independence of the agency’s research and praised those who volunteer time to provide expertise.
“Sometimes people may not like the answers, sometimes it’s industry that doesn’t like the answers, sometimes it’s others, sometimes it’s both – and then I think we’re about right. But if there are criticisms we take them seriously,” he said.
Detken also defended the agency against attacks that it protects industry, noting that EFSA regularly rules against health benefits and other claims made by the food industry. He says independent audits have shown “there is no indication of bias there in favour of one industry or another.”
“We believe that the rules do deliver results,” he said.