The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) fails to adequately manage conflicts of interest – but it does a better job of it than three other agencies just assessed by a European court.
“…none of the selected agencies adequately managed the conflict of interest situations,” concluded the European Court of Auditors (ECA), adding, “the shortcomings identified were, however, of varying degrees.”
It said EFSA and the European Medicines Agency (EMA) had the best record when it came to the transparency of those scientists and experts that worked with them, with the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA), European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) appearing more opaquely.
“Out of the selected agencies, EMA and EFSA have developed the most advanced policies and procedure for declaring, assessing and managing the conflict of interest.”
EFSA had the best report card when it came to transparency in areas like management declaration of interest, public consultation in policy matters, and use of external evaluators in expert recruitment (acts none of the other three agencies engaged in).
But overall, none of the agencies managed conflicts of interest very well, with the aviation body by far the worst in the audit of activities until October, 2011. For its part, EFSA implemented many changes that addressed points raised by the ECA after a review in December, 2011.
EFSA: “We are not complacent”
Responding, EFSA executive director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle said: “From the very outset, EFSA has focused on providing rules on avoiding potential conflicts of interest to those individuals most involved with the Authority’s work and has developed its policies in line with the need to secure the impartiality of its scientific advice.”
“But we are not complacent on this issue as we know how important it is for the perception of, and trust in, EFSA’s work. We will continue to rigorously implement our new Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision-Making Processes and the related implementing rules which came into force in July.”
The agency has been criticised for conflicts of interest due to member ties to food industry groups and firms, the GMO sector and consumer groups.
“Our actions will be guided by the recommendations of the European Court of Auditors’ report and the views of the European Parliament,” Geslain-Lanéelle said, referencing an Ernst and Young report that spoke of the agency’s, “culture of transparency and robust systems to ensure impartial scientific advice.”
EFSA has required experts to submit annual declarations of interest since the establishment of its scientific panels in 2003 and adopted its Policy on Declarations of Interest in 2007, updated in 2011 to improve screening processes.
“For experts, screening is carried out by EFSA twice before their appointment, firstly during the selection process and if they are selected, a second time before they are appointed,” the agency said.
In 2011 it screened more than 8,000 annual and specific declarations of interests and scrutinised more than 40,000 agenda items, with 356 experts totally or partially excluded from EFSA activities.
The audit found that the EFSA board management may impede partiality.
“…four out of the 15 EFSA Management Board Members have a background (including current involvement) in organisations representing consumers and other interests in the food industry.”
“Furthermore, the impartiality of EFSA’s work and decision-making might be jeopardised since three of these organisations represented on the Management Board are also represented in the stakeholder consultative platform.”
The audit defined conflicts of interest as: “… situations in which the private interests and affiliations of a public official create, or have the potential to create, conflict with the proper performance of his/her official duties.”
In its response included in the audit, EFSA stated: "EFSA would welcome a comprehensive EU regulatory framework that would officially regulate the structure of the evaluation and handling of conflicts of interest and support the assessment of compliance by any controlling authority."