NGOs have dismissed the strident defence of the EU food safety agency regarding the independence of its panel looking at food additives such as aspartame.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA)'s arguments supporting its scientific rigour are littered with inconsistencies, claim the Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Réseau Environnement Santé (RES), in communication sent to the head of that agency today.
EFSA was responding to an earlier letter from the NGOs demanding the dismissal of two experts from its scientific panel on food additives and nutrient sources added to food (ANS) on the basis of their "undisclosed industry ties".
The CEO and the RES claim the scientists - Riccardo Crebelli and Ursula Gundert-Remy - failed to declare consulting services for the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), a food industry-funded think tank and lobby group.
Questions about EFSA scientific independence draw industry-wide interest, particularly in light of the Commission's recent request to the food safety agency to conduct a full re-evaluation of the safety of aspartame by July 2012, due to MEPs’ concerns.
In a letter to the two NGOs, published on its website on 16 September, EFSA executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, noted a number of ‘factual errors’ in the CEO/RES account and wrote:
“According to EFSA’s policy on declarations of interest, the experts mentioned in your letter were not required to declare those activities, as they are not related to their scientific panel’s field of activities.”
And, therefore, she maintains, those activities "cannot constitute potential conflicts of interest".
However, Nina Holland, a spokesperson for the CEO, said Geslain-Lanéelle's above statement contradicts the Parma-based agency’s own guidance document on declarations of interest, signed by Geslain-Lanéelle herself in September 2009.
Speaking to FoodNavigator.com this morning, Holland said the 2009 guidance: “clearly demonstrates that advice or services in a particular field falling within EFSA’s remit must be declared even if this advice or these services are not related to the field of activities of the scientific panel of a given expert.”
Call for 'independent audit'
Geslain-Lanéelle, in her letter to the organisations, also states: “EFSA’s policy and rules on experts’ declarations of interest are regularly subject to internal and external audits.” She adds the EU food safety agency "complies with the applicable legal framework in the recruitment of its experts".
But the NGOs point out they did not propose the auditing of EFSA policy and rules, but, instead, suggested that its "experts’ declarations of interest should be independently audited.”
Additional EFSA remarks
In reference to Professor Crebelli's links with the ILSL, Geslain-Lanéelle’s letter to the NGOs says he "was not a member of a scientific committee on the safety of food packaging set up by ILSI. He took part in a scientific committee of a conference, which screened abstracts and selected best papers and speakers for the conference organised by ILSI.
"In the end, professor Crebelli did not attend the conference in question. The topic of the conference was food packaging which does not fall within the remit of the ANS panel."
The EFSA executive director added: "Professor Gundert-Remy advised ILSI on general research topics, such as obesity, that also fall outside the scope of the ANS panel.”
But, in their response today to Geslain-Lanéelle, the CEO and RES said they stand by their report's account of Crebelli’s activities.
The NGOs have also written to EU administration commissioner, Maroš Šefcovic, urging tighter regulation to enable greater transparency in relation to industry ties within the EU's agencies.
EFSA's letter of 16 September to the NGOs can be read here .
The CEO/RES reports can be accessed here .