Food safety agency seeks to repair its risk assessor reputation

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This article is part of our special report Risk vs. hazard in policymaking.

SPECIAL REPORT / More than a decade after it was established, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) still struggles to persuade consumers that it is a credible risk assessor working for the public good and not unduly influenced by corporate lobbyists.

A recent scandal exposing EFSA's links with the agro-chemical sector have led the agency to strengthen rules related to conflicts of interests and show greater openness to various stakeholders.

The EU established EFSA in 2002 after a series of food-related alerts, including the chicken dioxin scare and mad cow disease, which shook public confidence in food safety during the 1990s.

The General Food Law, passed in 2002, was meant to provide a comprehensive framework to ensure that the European food regulatory system was based on reliable science. One of the key elements was the functional separation of "risk assessment" and "risk management" activities, which led to the establishment of EFSA as an EU agency providing independent scientific advice to policymakers on risks associated with the food chain.

"Confident consumers are the cornerstone of a competitive economy, and the EFSA has an important role to play in boosting this confidence," said European Commission President José Manuel Barroso at the 2005 inauguration of EFSA's new headquarters in Parma, Italy.

As a consequence, EFSA’s key activity is scientific "risk assessment", a specialised field of applied science that involves reviewing scientific data and studies in order to evaluate the risks associated with certain products or substances.

Meanwhile, EU policymakers – the European Commission, Council and Parliament – have retained control over the the "risk management" part, which includes policy responses, as well as prevention and control measures to address emerging risks.

With mad cow disease still fresh in their memory, policymakers sought to root risk management decisions in the precautionary principle, which allows politicians to make discretionary decisions in matters where scientific knowledge is lacking, with a view to protecting the public from exposure to potential harm.

This means that EFSA officials might be asked to answer scientific questions from the European Parliament or the member states, and provide the public with scientific information.

Conflict of interest

But while the public has rarely criticised the risk management track record of politicians, EFSA has received repeated flak for a perceived lack of credibility in its risk assessment processes.

Health and environment NGOs in particular have pointed to close corporate links amongst EFSA's network of over 500 experts. One of the biggest rows has centered on genetically-modified organisms (GMOs), with NGOs claiming that EFSA had been unduly influenced by industry. EFSA has routinely found no human health risk from GMO consumption while dismissing studies indicating the opposite as of "insufficient scientific quality".

A recent controversy also includes EFSA's definition of endocrine disruptors, which led the anti-pesticides NGO PAN Europe to send an open complaint to Health and Consumer Affairs Commissioner Tonio Borg, accusing EFSA of creating loopholes for industry.

Unfortunately for EFSA, some of the criticism has had more than a grain of truth.

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 industry.

Bánáti eventually resigned from EFSA and announced that she would join ILSI-Europe on a permanent basis but the damage had been done, seriously putting into question EFSA's reputation as an independent body.

New conflicts of interest rules

To address the issue, EFSA unveiled new rules in March last year for its in-house staff, as well as its outside experts, including specified lists of activities that would preclude scientific experts from serving on advisory panels.

Scientists previously employed by industry must now have a two-year "cooling-off" period before they can sit on EFSA’s scientific panels and scientists who receive more than 25% of their research funding from industry face other restrictions on the roles they can undertake at the authority, for example.

Former staff – but not scientific advisers – must notify EFSA of all new employment for two years after their departure, and EFSA can ask them to refrain from working with the authority in their new job for one year.

Ragnar Löfstedt, professor of risk management and the director of the King’s College Centre for Risk Management in London, told EURACTIV in an interview that he finds EFSA “highly professional”. His collegues also shared that view, Löfstedt added.

“EFSA, of course, has been and is attacked by a number of NGOs. It is very unfortunate that some individuals have not been clear and transparent in terms of declaring their interests… But as a risk-assessment agency, EFSA is seen as credible,” the professor said.

Public involvement

Through its advisory forum, EFSA works in cooperation with the national food safety authorities on scientific data collection and monitoring, and communications activities.

EFSA also holds regular meetings with organisations representing consumers, industry, environmental NGOs and other stakeholders.

To ensure public involvement and transparency EFSA has recently had an online public consultation on its draft opinion on the food additive aspartame and a follow-up stakeholder meeting.

Research Director at the International Prevention Research Institute Philippe Autier who took part in EFSA's stakeholder meeting told EURACTIV that he "sincerely" believed EFSA was doing the right thing to ensure transparency.

"I’m pretty sure that some of the points and opinions raised during the meeting will be evaluated by the EFSA panel on aspartame and incorporated in the final report," Autier said.

"Otherwise, I do not see why EFSA would have had the public consultation and organised the conference. Under the current circumstances, it is the best EFSA can do. It's up to anyone to make his own perception of the EFSA report and the opinions they received," the research director added.

The challenge now for EFSA will be to convince the general public of its renewed sense of integrity. But that may take a while.

Ruth Veale, head of Food, Health, Environment and Safety Department at the European Consumers' Organisation (BEUC) told EURACTIV:

“As an organisation dedicated to improve consumers’ lives, BEUC considers EFSA as a valuable partner. We appreciate the work they have being doing on taking transparency a step further, involving all stakeholders.

“EFSA allows us to see where the science stops and the politics begins. Our relation has always been one of dialogue and respect, exchanging perspectives especially on tricky issues. Regarding their constant effort on greater transparency and independence of experts, it is crucial that EFSA continues to listen to and acts on the concerns voiced by civil society.”

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is an EU agency that provides independent scientific advice and communication on existing and emerging risks associated with the food chain.

EFSA’s work covers all matters with a direct or indirect impact on food and feed safety, including animal health and welfare, plant protection and plant health and nutrition.

The agency is governed by an independent Management Board whose members, EFSA says, are “appointed to act in the public interest and not represent any government, organisation or sector.”

Relying on a network of 500 external scientific experts, EFSA is primarily responsible for food and feed risk assessment.

  • 11-12 June: European Risk Summit in Dublin

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