The European Union’s central science agency must become more transparent to meet rapid technological change in food and agriculture, its likely next chief told the European Parliament this week. And conflicts of interest were not an issue.
Dr Bernhard Url, who has received European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) board backing to succeed Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle as executive director, told the EU parliamentarians of the risk assessment methodology the agency would employ going forward.
"Our first priority is to get the science right," Dr Url said. "We need the best experts, methodology and data…" to enable EFSA to remain, “at the cutting edge of risk assessment.”
Dr Url said transparency was never more important as the complexity of its work grew to deal with the rise of the likes of genetically modified organisms (GMO) and nanotechnologies.
In this way the agency was transforming its communications and hoped to bring younger experts into its fold and to better work with small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).
Conflicts of interest – perceived or real
Dr Url said conflicts of interest (COI) – something it has been heavily criticised over – were not an issue for the Parma, Italy-based agency.
"EFSA in 2014 does not have a problem with conflict of interest, but with perceived conflicts of interest,” he said.
“To address these concerns, a transparency boost is needed, to complement the impartiality safeguards that are in place. Guiding principle should be 'open risk assessment’, covering the entire life cycle of the risk assessment process."
He said all COI declarations were posted on the EFSA website and could be viewed by anyone. "EFSA has a breach of trust procedure, that has been applied about four or five times.”
Responding to questions about public trust in food in the wake of the horsemeat and e.coli problems, Dr Url acknowledged, "EFSA has a problem with some parts of civil society".
He reiterated the point that only greater transparency could address the issue.
"This way I hope that people will see that our scientists strive to find the best solutions," he said.
Big Food makers could not contribute directly to EFSA opinions but could give advice via expert sub-groups, he said.
Dr Url spoke to the parliament’s Environment, Public Health and Food Safety (ENVI) which will now submit an opinion on the potential appointment to Tony Borg, the European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Policy, along with EFSA’s management board chair, Sue Davies.
EFSA will then formally appoint its new chief for a 5-year term.
EFSA has also amended its ‘stop-the-clock’ procedures to improve the system when it demands extra information from applicants over various assessments including feed and food additives, food contact materials, flavourings, enzymes, genetically modified organisms, nutrition, food allergens, novel foods and pesticides.
EFSA’s various panels process about 400 of these per year and they account for about 60% of its work. The guidelines seek to harmonise the procedure across all its panels and make the work timelier and easier to understand by stakeholders.
“We are constantly striving to strengthen our risk assessment procedures,” said Per Bergman, EFSA’s chief of regulated products.
“This initiative is important because it links to three elements of this; namely making our evaluations as timely as possible, as well as ensuring equal treatment for applicants and the most efficient use of taxpayers’ money.”
Dr Bergman added: “This is a new approach and we recognise that the guidelines will evolve over time as we refine working practices further and consider future scientific developments.
“While EFSA will adhere to the guidelines wherever possible, we understand that applications will need to be treated on a case-by case basis. Therefore, we will maintain a close dialogue with stakeholders as we put these new procedures into practice.”
The new procedure kicks into life on May 1.
Read more about the guidelines here .