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.”
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.