EFSA boss: Our advice should not be misused for short-term political interests

Bernhard Url: "Good science is the same all over the world. It does not matter where it is produced." [Sarantis Michalopoulos]

This article is part of our special report A difficult balance: Science, politics and policy-making on food.

The attacks of some campaign groups regarding the credibility of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) result in a “general erosion of trust” in the bodies designed to protect public health, EFSA director Bernhard Url told EURACTIV.com in an interview.

“Some of the same campaign groups who attacked EFSA’s credibility over glyphosate applauded our work on neonicotinoids,” Url emphasised.

Bernhard Url is the executive director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), based in Parma. He spoke to EURACTIV’s Sarantis Michalopoulos ahead of the “Science, Food, Society” conference due on 18-21 September in Parma.

INTERVIEW HIGHLIGHTS:

  • There is a danger that institutions on which society relies in the long-term are delegitimised for short-term political interests;
  • The advice of a food safety authority such as EFSA should not be misused as a cover for other interests;
  • EFSA does not focus on the source of a scientific study but on its quality;
  • Good science is the same all over the world;
  • Any additional responsibility to EFSA should be accompanied with additional resources.

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The title of the 2018 EFSA Conference is “Science, Food, Society”. What is the common thread that runs through these three elements?

When you deal with science, you deal with a methodological framework and data, while when you deal with food and society there are a lot of values attached. EFSA’s work is situated in the middle of this contrast between a value-free science (to the extent that this is possible) on one side and a domain, that of food, which is charged with emotions.

Food is culture, identity, social experience and hence a highly emotive issue. Science, which is analytical, systematic, objective and value-free, is at the opposite end of this spectrum. The common thread that runs through these three elements is trust. It’s the currency that holds the system together.

Trust is one of the main topics we aim to discuss at our conference. The title of EFSA’s conference aims to capture the interplay but also tensions between the different elements that affect decisions on food. Our aim is to provide a forum where hundreds of delegates from around the world involved in food and feed safety can explore these interconnections and discuss what is working well in the system but also about where there is room for improvement.

What has gone wrong with the trust of EU public opinion towards public food authorities in recent years?

I do not share this premise. The fifteen years of the existence of the EU’s General Food Law have rightly been celebrated as a success. It created a resilient system underpinned by scientific evidence. This is not to ignore the food safety incidents of the past such as the horsemeat scandal and the more recent fipronil-contamination of eggs for example.

These are cases of fraud that should be dealt with by the national authorities through law enforcement. But in general, European food has never been as safe as it is now. Fifteen years after learning the lessons of BSE, the EU’s food safety system has become a model for the rest of the world. A number of challenges remain including the increasing globalisation of supply chains, which brings new risks. New technologies such as blockchain could provide one tool in this area to support efforts on traceability for example.

There have been a handful of cases that have drawn significant public attention in recent years. Think about the debates on GMOs, pesticides such as glyphosate and artificial sweeteners, which have been highly politically charged. Some of the same campaign groups who attacked EFSA’s credibility over glyphosate applauded our work on neonicotinoids that were deemed dangerous.

The overall effect of this is a general erosion of trust in the bodies that are designed to protect public health. It’s an example of short-term political gain taking precedence over the long-term interest of citizens. This is part of a wider issue that faces public bodies and democratic institutions, including the EU as a whole.

I find it worrying because the danger is that institutions on which society relies in the long-term are delegitimised for short-term political interests.

There is a general discussion in Brussels about EU decision-making process. Critics suggest it is not science-based, as is the case in other parts of the world, and this affects Europe’s competitiveness. Looking at the glyphosate or neonics debates, EFSA is alternately praised or criticised by the industry or by NGOs. What do you think the EU should do to in order to restore this trend?

Good science is the same all over the world. It does not matter where it is produced. What is different is how other legitimate factors enter into the debate at the political level. That is how democracy works.

Policy-makers are responsible for deciding which priorities take precedence. The important thing is that it is made clear to citizens why these decisions are taken. The advice of a food safety authority such as EFSA should not be misused as a cover for other interests. Let’s be transparent about how policy decisions are made.

And if today certain laws are then considered to be out of date and no longer reflect society’s wishes, they must be updated.

On transparency: There are some MEPs who say the process is biased in favour of industry and suggest that the link between the companies and the commissioning of studies should be removed and placed in the hands of an independent body, possibly EFSA. What is your opinion about that? Could EFSA take this responsibility?

The basis for the current pesticide approval model that industry should carry the financial responsibility for proving the safety of its products was decided by the legislators in 2009. EFSA maintains that the current process for handling and scrutinising the data it receives as part of the application dossiers is adequate and the evaluation process is transparent and objective.

Various models have been proposed recently and personally, I believe some of these are interesting. These proposals are currently in the hands of EU policy-makers and discussions are ongoing. But any change that would put additional responsibilities on EFSA could only be assumed in conjunction with a corresponding deployment of resources.

According to the European Commission, EFSA’s budget will increase significantly, by €62.5 million per year. However, this amount will be part of the negotiation on the next MFF. How will you manage to deliver the new rules if no agreement is reached?

EFSA can only assume the new tasks and responsibilities that are part of the review of the General Food Law if the latter are accompanied by a corresponding budget increase, as clearly stipulated in the legislative financial statement that accompanies the European Commission proposal.

If not, EFSA would have to reprioritise its tasks. The budget increase would not just be a boost for the EU’s food safety system but also a valuable long-term investment, with two-thirds of the money to be reinvested in Member State risk assessment organisations for the work their experts will do for EFSA. Currently EFSA is not in a position to compensate these authorities for such work.

The proposed budget increase would therefore increase the overall quality of expertise and safeguard the future sustainability of EFSA’s operations and risk assessment in Europe.

According to the new rules, EFSA will be reinforced with external experts from member states. How will you ensure their independence from the national governments?

The same stringent rules that EFSA applies now on independence will continue to apply to experts used by EFSA in the future. We’re open to organising the expert selection based on any decision by the legislators, as long as it ensures that the selection criteria of independence, scientific excellence and the relevant competency criteria are fulfilled.

EFSA was created specifically to separate risk assessment from the decisions taken by risk managers, following a number of food crises in the late 90s, when political priorities were put ahead of scientific assessments. It’s important this separation is maintained.

Critics suggest that studies done by NGOs are accepted as a legitimate part of the political debate but they are not subject to the same standards as industry studies. Why is this happening? Shouldn’t all studies be equally treated, considering that we focus on scientific evidence?

The source or provenance of a scientific study is not important. What matters is the quality of that study. All relevant studies are considered by EFSA in its assessments regardless of who carried them out. It is the job of EFSA’s experts to appraise the quality of studies and determine whether or not the study should form part of the risk assessment.

For industry-funded studies, there are guidelines that are drawn up at international level for how they must be produced and for the independently-audited laboratories that must carry them out according to specific standards of good practice.

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