EU food safety agency aims for more transparency

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Amid growing criticism of its GMO bias and growing overall workload, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has decided to develop a database of external scientific experts to help the agency carry out risk assessments and enhance the transparency of the expert recruitment process. 

EFSA is the EU’s scientific risk assessment body on food and feed safety, nutrition, animal welfare, plant protection and health. Following its assessments, the Commission decides whether to authorise products on the European market.

In recent years, some member states have criticised the agency, in particular accusing it of approving genetically modified (GM) products without proper research and relying too much on information provided by industry only. In addition, with new regulation on health claims in force since July 2007, EFSA is receiving an increasing number of scientific dossiers to be assessed and the food industry has expressed its concern over the agency’s capacity to deal with the dossiers on time.

“EFSA is a growing organisation,” said the authority’s press officer Alun Jones, adding that the establishment of the database is “a natural evolution in our development”. He rebutted the notion of any relationship between criticism of the agency’s GMO bias and the enlargement of scientific support for it.

“We need more scientific experts accross the whole range of EFSA’a activites,” he said, explaining that these experts will not be hired as members of scientific panels but as people providing support for the panel members in preparing their opinions. The aim is “to take into account as many views as possible”. 

The revised policy for the selection of scientific experts and for the new database will, according to EFSA, also “contribute to enhancing the transparency of the way in which experts are selected and invited to participate in EFSA’s scientific activities”. Jones said the agency could also hire non-EU experts if they are leaders in their field. The scientist database will also be available to all the EU 27 countries, who may use it to select experts for their own scientific activities.

Commenting on EFSA’s workings, Greenpeace Europe spokesperson Mark Breddy said the agency is currently “ill-equipped and under-funded to do what it is supposed to do”. On GMO authorisation, Breddy said the agency “relies entirely on industry data,” adding that there’s no evidence that scientific opinion in different member states and outside is being taken into account. “Therefore, EFSA should be strengthened,” he concluded.

Greenpeace urges EFSA to make sure that the new expert database broadens the expertise involved in reaching its opinions, helps to make EFSA’s risk assessment processes become more transparent and that it lists only scientists who do not have business interests.

“Having a database is not enough to solve the problems in EFSA’s decision-making process,” noted David Azoulay, Friends of the Earth Europe’s chemicals campaign coordinator, adding that money and political will was also needed to actually use the external experts.

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