Food industry wants common science principles to boost trust


Supplements on a supermarket shelf. [Health Gauge]

The EU’s food and drinks industry has developed a set of principles for research conduct that will apply to the sector.

The new principles for science presented by FoodDrinkEurope at an event in Brussels on Wednesday (18 November), are meant to set a common basis on which issues such as health claims about food products, can be discussed.

FoodDrinkEurope wants the principles to be applied to any research, funded by industry or not. 

Some of these principles specify that research should be conducted following analyses that state the limitations to the outcome of the final publication. Scientific criteria, such as methodology, data quality and statistical analysis, should be applied equally to all research, irrespective of industry support.

FoodDrinkEurope is also calling for more transparency on research collaborations with partners, such as universities.

Ian Macdonald, a professor of Metabolic Physiology at the University of Nottingham, whose research work is often sponsored by the private sector, highlighted that as of late, nutrional science has focused on how to prevent maladies such as diabetes, heart disease and malnutrition through better diets. 

This is where scientists are adding novel foods and ingredients which need proper prior research.

The science that has made an “enormous contribution” and benefitted public health in both developed and developing countries over the last half-century came from research paid for by both governments, foundations, charities, universities, health services as well as industry. 

“The accusation that we are biased is insulting. Just because we talk to the industry we suddenly have no integrity, honesty and we just tell governments what the industry wants us to. I will tell you what the evidence says and not what you want to hear. Trusting the scientist’s integrity is an important element,” he stated.

Macdonald admitted, however, that there are historical examples of the industry doing things that in retrospect were unforgiveable. For example, it was revealed that the sugar industry had a profound effect in the 1970s on the activities of national health institutes in the US and their programmes, including making sure that certain research outcomes were never published.

Ilaria Passarani, head of the food and health department at the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), said that her organisation wants the industry to contribute to science as well as industry-funded research. 

“Unfortunately, evidence shows that industry-sponsored research often favours the interest of the sponsor and in the pharmaceutical sector, industry-sponsored clinical trials tend to support those who want market access. I think the mistrust is linked to this,” Passarani said.

Transparency in EU bodies

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) are moving towards open science, as there is a “very big drive in the European sphere” supporting transparency, said Hubert Deluyker, a scientific advisor at EFSA.

Deluyker said that the food safety agency has noticed that the ‘precautionary principle’ in science in the EU is also more often being emphasised, said Hubert Deluyker, a scientific advisor at the agency. This puts the question of timelines onto the agenda.

“The debate and the whole discussion always heats up around the time researchers are submitting their dossiers to the likes of EFSA. This can delay something that has already been assessed,” the EFSA advisor mentioned.

Meanwhile, Isidoros Karatzas, head of the Commission’s DG RTD’s Ethics and Research Integrity sector, added that in the member states, the procedures to implement scientific codes are not clearly marked, available or known by all stakeholders, not even the researchers themselves.

“The curriculum does not in all member states highlight the issue of integrity and the avoidance of misconduct for the young generation of researchers,” the DG RTD representative said.

“Misconduct is something that really brings a lot of problems for the scientific endeavour, but we think and we hope that the majority of the people involved in research don’t have anything to do with this. Research integrity applies to everybody. We hope that misconduct only applies to a very small proportion of that population. Nevertheless, it has an effect,” he continued.

Karatzas emphasised that all the activities, which the Commission will fund, have to comply with ethical principles, and the executive has procedures to look into the matter, which will be used no matter where the research comes from.

European Union lawmakers agreed in December 2014 over a new Clinical Trials Regulation, which replaces a 2001 directive.

Under the agreement, pharmaceutical companies and academic researchers will be obliged to upload the results of all their European clinical trials to a publicly accessible database.

A publicly accessible EU database will be set up and run by the European Medicines Agency (EMA), which will contain a register of all trials carried out in the EU, a summary of results for all trials, uploaded one year after the end of the trial at the latest.

Enhancing the competitiveness of clinical research was a primary aim of the directive's revision amid claims that Europe would become an unattractive place to conduct large-scale trials on potentially lucrative new medicines.

The regulation also speeds up how researchers get ethical approval for medical trials and seeks to improve standards in how new medicines are tested and manufactured.

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