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EFSA defends independence as new data shows 46% of experts have conflicts of interest

3 commentsBy David Burrows , 14-Jun-2017
Last updated on 14-Jun-2017 at 18:28 GMT2017-06-14T18:28:38Z

©iStock/stanciuc
©iStock/stanciuc

The European Food Safety Authority has been urged to rethink its new independence rules after new research showed that more than one in four of its experts have direct financial conflicts of interest.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which provides independent scientific advice to the European institutions on food safety matters, said the figures are misleading, and accused campaigners of chasing headlines.

The new analysis of EFSA’s 10 scientific panels found that 46% of the 211 experts had a financial conflict of interest.

This is down from 59% in 2013 but “the norm should be zero”, said campaign group Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), which compiled the figures.

According to CEO, 26.5% of experts have a direct financial conflict of interest (that is, they have received money from regulated interests in the past five years), whilst 30.3% have indirect financial conflicts of interests (in other words, they belong to an organisation receiving more than 20% of its funding from regulated interests in the past five years).

More than 16% of experts have both direct and indirect financial conflicts of interest (COIs).

On the genetically modified organisms panel, for example, the percentage of experts in COI fell from 58% to 44% (2012-2015 versus 2015-2018). For contaminants in the food chain the drop was 75% to 52%, whilst on the dietetic products, nutrition and allergies panel it was 85% to 48%.

CEO cites two possible reasons for the findings: either EFSA has increased efforts to hire new experts with fewer financial links to industry, or there has been a rise in omissions in the experts’ declarations of interest.

“The proportion of experts who do not have a declared conflict of interest has increased significantly … but there is also an increase in situations which could not be assessed based only on the information provided by the experts,” CEO concluded in its report, Recruitment Errors.

EFSA defended its “strict rules on independence” and criticised CEO’s interpretation of ‘financial interests’. In a statement sent to FoodNavigator a spokesperson explained:

“… from an initial reading of the report, CEO seems to have determined that experts employed by or affiliated with several well-respected scientific institutes across Europe should be excluded from EFSA’s Panels. They also cite the mere participation of an expert at an industry-sponsored event as a reason to ban scientists from EFSA’s activities.”

New rules

CEO’s agribusiness researcher Martin Pigeon welcomed the “limited improvement in the proportion of experts who should not have been appointed on EFSA’s scientific panels” but suggested the trend will only be temporary unless policies are tightened up.

EFSA's management board will consider new independence rules next week (June 21). However, the draft perpetuates the existing policy’s main problems and loopholes”, Pigeon claimed.

The European Parliament has repeatedly called for a two-year cooling-off period for experts in relation to financial interests in all regulated companies, as well as organisations funded by them.

The new rules include a commitment along these lines but EFSA will only assess experts’ interest according to the specific mandate of the panel they want to join or be reappointed to.

To “heal its reputation” EFSA should increase the cooling off period to five years and widen it to cover all materials related to the companies whose products are assessed by the authority, Pigeon said.

He also acknowledged that the authority desperately needs additional resources from the European Commission, with national food safety organisations reportedly reluctant to send their experts to work at EFSA.

An analysis by FoodNavigator published in May showed how EFSA is paying the price of political priorities.

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Response to comments

A brief comment to respond to EFSA’s criticism:

- EFSA’s current independence rules are only strict when it comes to very specific cases of conflicts of interests, when an expert is funded by industry on the exact same issue that EFSA’s panel is working on. This does not reflect the way industry lobbying works. For instance, the considerable influence work done by industry-funded organisations on risk assessment methodologies has consequences across products.

- I don’t know where EFSA read that we would consider “the mere participation at an industry-sponsored event” as a COI. It is simply not the case. We did remarks about EFSA experts participating to events organised by lobby groups – not sponsored scientific societies, which would be absurd as most rely on sponsorship for their events – but only considered the fact of co-organising events for industry-sponsored groups as an indirect financial COI.

- We did determine that employment in organisations receiving more than 20% of their funding from regulated companies in the past 5 years constituted an indirect financial conflict of interests. The fact that these institutions would be “well-respected” is irrelevant (respected by whom and for what?), as the point of EFSA’s independence is first and foremost (although not exclusively – financial COIs could be with NGOs too, but we didn’t find any) to protect it from companies whose products it evaluates.

Again, we do not ask that industry-funded experts, or even industry employees, are excluded from the risk assessment process entirely but that the involvment of scientists in a financial COI situation is limited to dedicated hearings. Deliberation and drafting should exclusively be done by independent experts.

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Posted by Martin Pigeon
20 June 2017 | 11h452017-06-20T11:45:23Z

conflict of interest? Why only target the industry?

It is weird to see that only potential conflicts of interest with industry are evaluated. Scientists with ties with NGOs could also have an opinion as biased as scientists with ties with the industry.

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Posted by Edouard Casala
16 June 2017 | 11h092017-06-16T11:09:52Z

conflict ot interest?

an artificial concern! Without the input from the industry and by their experts, there are no reliable, scientific data to judge the situation. Even scientists payed by the industry do not chnage their opinion once getting a higher payment. This are just unfounded allegations by ideological opponents to any industry in food production.

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Posted by Dieter E
14 June 2017 | 18h242017-06-14T18:24:07Z

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