Transparency is important, but this may not be compatible with openness of scientific debate, according to the temporary chair of the European Food Safety Authority's (EFSA) Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies (NDA) panel.
Talking at the EFSA base in Parma, Italy, panel chair Professor Sean Strain of Ulster University said that although he "sympathised" with the question of transparency, he thought truly open panels where members felt comfortable sharing information were only possible behind closed doors. In 2012, EFSA said it would open more of its Scientific Committee and Scientific Panel meetings to observers, as part of a push towards greater transparency and openness.
Strain also said a clear line must be drawn between scientific organisations like EFSA and policy makers and regulators. At an open-access EFSA plenary discussing transparency and scientific independence, he said he thought it was important to distinguish this clearly and saw examples of arguably blurred lines between science on paper and policy in practice as unhelpful. With institutions like the World Health Organisation (WHO), he said there was a"Chinese wall" between the scientists and the policy makers, with the two sometimes being the same thing.
He said to ensure scientific clarity, the scientific panel must "be blind to the needs of the industry and be blind to the needs of the consumer - this is in the remit of the Commission".
On the agenda
Strain led the panel - made up of European scientists from a variety of backgrounds and disciplines - this week as the usual chair, Professor Ambroise Martin, was unable to attend. On Thursday, the nutrition panel discussed safe levels of caffeine, dietary reference values for folate and selenium and considered comments received during a period of public consultancy for a draft on the composition of milk-based drinks and products for infants and young children.
Wednesday was a day closed to the public due to the confidential, proprietary nature of the health claim applications discussed. Outlines of the claims and their applicants can be found here .
Meanwhile on Friday - the second and last day open to press, firms, NGOs and trade associations - the panel is to discuss a dietary reference value for niacin including comments from a public consultancy and a draft opinion on health benefits of fish and shellfish consumption in relation to health risks associated to exposure to methylmercury.
Open panel = closed debate?
Strain said he thought some panel members - who may not be the principle researchers behind questions raised nor have English as their first language - may feel inhibited by having outsiders in the room.
He said it was important that "naive questions" were asked as this forced the expert panel members to go back and think about the fundamentals. More timid panelists may be reluctant to ask these 'in public', which could impact the advancements made in the discussion.
He added that it seemed certain NGOs and industry members were always "ready to jump on" any decision or statement made, which also risked keeping some panelists guarded.
Asked if the panel would ever be willing to record and upload open meetings, saving interested public the often long and complicated trip to Parma, Strain said he personally thought this would mean discussions would be "totally inhibited".
"I would have sympathy with transparency and open meetings, but I would be totally against recording."
Among the observers was Dr Adriano Cattaneo for the breast milk lobby group International Baby Food Action Network (IBFAN), there to hear EFSA's reaction to public consultancy comments on infant and young children formula composition, for which it submitted feedback.
During a break for observer questions, Cattaneo asked how the panel had decided which DHA studies to include and if it considered industry-funded research to be intrinsically bias and therefore inappropriate to include.
This, Professor Strain replied, was not the place of the panel. Instead it assessed which research to include based on scientific and design merit alone.
Later, he added there had been a tendency towards a narrative with "industry as the grand satan trying to poison the European community".
"I don't know why the food industry is targeted more than pharma."
He said just because research was funded by corporations, it didn't mean the science was wrong.
"Of course industry funds near to market. Private funding by its very nature could be leading research away from certain areas."
This, though, meant that more government-funded research was called for, he said, but did not detract from the findings of the industry-led studies.