According to the report “Unhappy Meal. The European Food Safety Authority's independence problem”, almost 60% of experts sitting on EFSA's panels have direct or indirect links with industries regulated by the Authority.
The report states that there are "major loopholes" in EFSA's independence policies and that new rules for assessing experts, implemented in 2012, have failed to improve the situation. The main criticism is that the rules on experts' interests are too narrow, mainly looking at the panel's specific remit to determine whether there are conflicts of interest.
This enables dozens of experts with multiple commercial interests (consultancy contracts, research funding, etc.) to be still granted full membership of EFSA panels, including a majority of panel chairs and vice-chairs, claim the authors of the report.
For the Corporate Europe Obervatory (CEO), the situation casts a severe doubt on the credibility of EFSA's scientific assessments on areas such as food additives, packaging, genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), contaminants or pesticides.
“We were shocked by our findings. Even without checking for undeclared interests, the number of conflicts of interest in this agency is very worrying," Horel said.
"Experts with conflicts of interest dominate all panels but one. We found that the bulk of conflicts are from research funding and private consultancy contracts, but certain crucial institutions for scientists (scientific societies, journals) are also targeted by industry lobbying, and EFSA seems to ignore this," Horel continued.
More than a decade after it was established, EFSA is still struggling to persuade consumers that it is a credible risk assessor working for the public good.
In May last year, European Parliament lawmakers urged EFSA to tighten safeguards against potential conflicts of interest amongst its staff after Diána Bánáti, then the chairperson of EFSA's management board, failed to mention that she was also a member of ILSI-Europe, a body funded by the food and agro-chemical lobby.
The scandal led the agency to strengthen rules related to conflicts of interests and show greater openness to various stakeholders.
EFSA claims it is transparent
Sue Davies, chair of EFSA's Management Board, replied to the accusations in a statement, saying that EFSA had improved its transparency to facilitate public access to its work and enhance the independence of its scientific decision-making processes.
"I therefore read with interest the latest report from Corporate Europe Observatory on alleged conflicts of interest at EFSA. The fact that EFSA makes its experts’ Declarations of Interest publicly available online allows interested parties to scrutinise for themselves how the Authority selects its scientific experts," Davies said.
She conceded however that the report raises questions that go beyond mere processes and policies at EFSA, questions that relate to the broader relationship between science and society.
"These may have to do with private/public partnerships in research, the human and financial resources dedicated to risk assessment and the legislative framework for regulated products. These are issues that EFSA cannot resolve on its own, and need to be part of a wider debate," the chair of EFSA's Management Board said.