(download a pdf of the report)
EFSA’s mission is to provide independent scientific advice to the European institutions on food safety matters. Assessing the risks related to industry products represents about two thirds of its workload.
In 2013 Corporate Europe Observatory performed a systematic assessment 1 of all EFSA panels, and found that almost 60 percent of EFSA’s experts had direct and/or indirect financial interests with companies whose products the Authority was assessing. These include products European citizens put in their shopping baskets and feed to their families every day.
Conflict of interest scandals have kept erupting regularly (on most issues but in particular food additives, pesticides, GMOs, nutrition recommendations…) ever since NGOs and the media discovered that EFSA’s independence policy was, essentially, dysfunctional.
Today, we publish an updated assessment of EFSA’s ten scientific panels (211 experts), whose outcome is, despite commitments by the agency to improve his recruitment, only slightly better: the proportion of experts with a financial conflict of interest has only gone down from 59% to 46%2.
While EFSA’s draft new independence policy is a very marginal improvement to the current one, it still reproduces its main problems and loopholes. To illustrate each of the main flaws in this policy, for each loophole we publish a sample of experts currently sitting on EFSA’s panels who have financial interests in regulated companies (or their lobby groups).
Unless the agency’s Board takes serious ownership of developing the new independence policy – which thus far has clearly been steered by EFSA’s management to keep business as usual at the agency – it is highly unlikely to be fit for purpose.
The reason for this situation is simple: EFSA has few resources and has always prioritised excellence over independence. However, this is a false dichotomy: for a public food safety regulator, excellence is impossible to reach without independence from the food industry.
Furthermore, it is entirely possible to preserve both EFSA’s integrity and access to the best expertise by inviting the broadest range of experts, including those from industry, to dedicated hearings, but leaving the deliberation and writing phases of EFSA’s scientific opinions to independent experts. It is difficult to understand why EFSA’s management has not opted for such a system, in place for instance at the International Agency for Research Against Cancer and whose robustness has been demonstrated in the recent glyphosate drama.
The European Parliament has demanded every year for the past four years that when EFSA appoints new experts, as a matter of principle, it respects a two-years cooling-off period for financial interests in all regulated companies (and organisations funded by them).
But EFSA’s management has been opposed to the idea from the very start. Today, all the signals we receive from this agency are that it simply will not do it. We hope EFSA’s Management Board will prove us wrong.
I. Financial conflicts of interest in EFSA’s scientific panels
In July 2015, EFSA renewed its panels (panels are appointed for three years). It described its new experts by announcing that “many of them come from universities and research institutes”. Did this mean that these new panels are, on average, more independent from companies EFSA exists to regulate?
Indeed, EFSA is not any scientific organisation but a public regulatory agency, whose assessment means life or death in the EU for regulated products in the agribusiness and food industries. Following the financial interests of its external experts points to many structures and tactics industry uses to make sure EFSA says the ‘right’ thing.
Our updated (but simpler) assessment shows not much has improved: the proportion of financial conflicts of interest has remained very high. 46% of panel members3 have at least one financial conflict of interest with a regulated company. Among the experts composing the 2015-2018 EFSA panels, 52% are re-appointments.
Strikingly, the proportion of experts with conflicts of interest in 2013 among these re-appointments is almost exactly the same as the general proportion of experts with conflicts of interest in 2012-2015 (59%). Difficult not to see this result as a sign that EFSA’s management did not take independence from the food industry at all into consideration when deciding whether or not to re-appoint these experts. Beyond PR and a few small measures, EFSA has clearly not taken significant action on the problems we had identified.