Commission efforts to build trust in food safety receives mixed reviews

The applicant should submit both a non-confidential and confidential version of the studies. [Shutterstock]

The European Commission presented on Wednesday (11 April) a proposal aimed at restoring public trust in scientific studies on food safety, suggesting more transparency in decision-making and greater involvement of member states’ experts.

Following a European Citizens’ Initiative on the re-authorisation of the controversial herbicide glyphosate, the EU executive unveiled a new proposal that will be discussed with the European Parliament and member states and should be adopted by mid-2019.

The lack of access to scientific studies used for the authorisation of products in the name of business confidentiality has triggered strong reactions from health advocates and policymakers, who blamed the lack of transparency on chemicals industry.

Under the new proposal, EU citizens are granted greater access to information submitted to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on approvals concerning the agri-food chain.

Inspired by the Monsanto Papers and in an effort to avoid companies “hiding” unfavourable studies, the executive intends to create a common European Register of commissioned studies in which all information will be submitted.

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The Greek ministry of agriculture officially approved on Tuesday (6 March) the re-authorisation of the world’s most commonly used weedkiller, Monsanto’s Roundup, which contains controversial chemical substance glyphosate.

The Commission pointed out, though, that confidential commercial information would not be disclosed “as long as this is duly justified”. So, the applicant should submit both a non-confidential and confidential version of the studies.

But in two cases confidential information will be made public: When an urgent action is essential to protect public health, animal health or the environment and when the information is part of the conclusions of an EFSA opinion and relates to foreseeable health effects.

In addition, the Commission’s proposal provides a better representation of member states’ experts in EFSA’s Management Board

“Member states will also propose independent and top quality experts for EFSA Scientific Panels’ membership with a view to gathering a large pool of experts from which the best experts – meeting EFSA’s strict criteria for independence and excellence – will be selected,” the executive noted.

Funded studies by EU taxpayers

Another proposal is related to the Commission’s ability to demand that EFSA request additional studies in the event of intense controversy on a case. These additional studies, according to the executive, should be financed from the EU budget.

“However, this is without prejudice to the responsibility of applicants for providing the scientific evidence needed by EFSA for the risk assessment process.”

This triggered the reaction of Greenpeace, which said in a statement that the chemical industry remains in charge of testing its own products.

“The publication of test results supporting applications for pesticide approvals is the bare minimum. But the Commission is just papering over the cracks. Pesticide producers should not be allowed to control the testing of their own products.

“As a rule, this should be the job of the EU – not only in controversial cases – and should not be funded by taxpayers but by the companies who want their products approved,” said Greenpeace’s EU spokesperson, Mark Breddy.

On the other hand, the pesticides industry hailed the Commission’s proposal, saying it’s vital to improve public trust in that system.

“As a demonstration of this [support], we recently announced a Global industry Commitment with regards to the transparency of data in studies used as part of the pesticide approval process,” said Graeme Taylor, a spokesperson for the EU pesticide industry association (ECPA).

“Building trust in the system also requires better communication by all actors in the food chain from the presentation of the risk assessment right through to the information delivered to the consumers […] I hope that the global commitment to further transparency from our industry, and the principles enshrined in this new proposal, will be met with a similar commitment by those on the other side of the debate who produce studies arguing against the need for, or approval of, pesticides.”

In December 2017, Bayer became the first agri-food industry to launch a transparency website, designed to enable access to scientific data needed for the evaluation of plant protection products.

“With this step, Bayer is taking a leadership role in driving transparency, while safeguarding the company’s confidential product composition and manufacturing process data,” Utz Klages from Bayer told EURACTIV.com.

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Klages noted that in March 2018, Bayer’s transparency initiative entered the next phase. “Full, in-depth, safety-related study reports can now be requested providing they are not used for commercial purpose.”

“This Bayer initiative is an important step towards increased transparency. By sharing safety data, which was previously only shared with authorities, we hope to connect the public with our scientific community in a way that builds trust and shows our desire to further create transparency,” Klages said.

Positions

Corporate Europe Observatory’s food policy campaigner Martin Pigeon, commented:

“Automatic and pro-active publication of previously confidential industry study data in a machine-readable format is an important first step in the right direction. So is the creation of a public register of studies to prevent industry from submitting only results favourable to their products to EFSA, as well as the substantial increase of EFSA’s budget. But the Commission’s proposal features a big caveat that means anyone wanting to quote and use the data will need to ask permission to do so from the company that has provided EFSA with this data.”

“This creates a huge risk that industry will block any scientific scrutiny of EFSA’s assessment of their products. If scientists cannot quote this data in scientific publications there will be only a limited incentive for the scientific community to double-check EFSA’s work. The publication of much-needed independent cross-checks of industry data must not depend on the goodwill of private entities whose primary objective is to make a profit, not to protect public health and the environment.”

Thilo Bode, Executive Director of the European consumer organisation Foodwatch International, noted:

"The continued approval of the controversial weed killer glyphosate is exemplary of one thing: It is high time that risk assessment in the agricultural and food sectors no longer serve the interests of corporations, but rather the protection of consumers. Risk assessment must be done consistently according to the precautionary principle as laid out across European treaties”.

“The reversal of the burden of proof must apply when it comes to assessing the safety of a product or substance: If there is scientific evidence of health hazards, no approval should be issued for precautionary reasons - and existing authorisations should be withdrawn. And: All studies, including those of the industry, must be on the table. This has not been the case, as shown in the glyphosate example so far: Even now, Monsanto keeps secret its own studies on the potential dangers of glyphosate,” he added.

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