Case closed? EFSA failed on conflict of interests case, finds EU Ombudsman

EFSA failed on conflict of interests case, finds EU Ombudsman

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The European Food Safety Authority failed to take adequate measures to prevent conflict of interests arising from a major 'revolving doors' case in 2008, according to a final EU Ombudsman ruling on the case.

The ruling finds that the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) mishandled a major revolving doors case involving biotechnology company Syngenta.

The case involved Dr Suzy Renckens - who was former head of the unit responsible for the risk assessment of genetically engineered plants at EFSA for five years. However, she took up the post of regional manager for biotechnology regulatory affairs at Syngenta, a company that produces and markets these plants, two months after leaving her post at the EU agency.

The complaint arose after a German non-profit group (Testbiotech) complained about EFSA's handling of the move - specifically expressing concern that Renckens took up her post at Syngenta less than two months after leaving EFSA, which had not implemented any 'cooling off' period or further conditions to the move despite the fact that it had powers to do so.

In doing so, the final EU Ombudsman report (found here​) said that EFSA had “failed to fulfil the procedural obligations emanating from the applicable rules” ​and did not “acknowledge its failure to observe the relevant procedural rules and to carry out a sufficiently thorough assessment of the potential conflict of interests"

Ombudsman ruling

Testbiotech initially brought the Renckens case to public attention in 2009, however both EFSA and the EU Commission refused to take action on the complaint at that time. This resulted in the non-profit, with the support of Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), asking the EU Ombudsman to investigate the case.

The EU Ombudsman sent a series of first recommendations in 2011, stating that EFSA did not handle this case correctly. EFSA then changed its rules and procedures in December 2011 to strengthen its independence, but, according to the Ombudsman ruling published last on May 23 the Ombudsman sees need for further improvements.

The judgement also adds to concerns about EFSA´s independence policy - an issue already  expressed as a concern in a report from the European Court of Auditors published in October 2012, as well as two resolutions from the European Parliament in 2012 and 2013 in the framework of the budget discharge process.

Conflict resolution

“EFSA seems to not be able to solve its problems with conflict of interests," said​ Christoph Then of Testbiotech

Martin Pigeon, researcher and campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, said the case serves as a reminder to everybody about how strategic EFSA is for the agrofood industry, "and how weak EFSA's independence policy remains."

For example, Then added that EFSA lacks 'sufficient standards' in its relationship with the industry think tank International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI).

A further case involving Harry Kuiper who has worked with both EFSA and ILSI on GMOs has also been brought to the Ombudsman by Testbiotech - however and judgement is still pending on this case.

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