Food industry accused of 'massive infiltration' of EFSA pesticides panel

The European food safety authority (EFSA) should put in place a science integrity officer to counter unfair industry lobbying and restore its independence, argues Hans Muilerman.

By Hans Muilerman

10 Feb 2014

For decades European regulators have based their (safe) food standards on the toxic effects of single pesticide use. However, this does not reflect reality as EU citizens consume many different pesticide residues in fruit and vegetables at the same time.

Of the fruit and vegetables on the European market around 26 per cent contain more than one pesticide. So if you ate an apple in the morning with three pesticides, strawberries in the afternoon with five pesticides and tomatoes in the evening with four pesticides, you are exposed to a toxic mixture. And this exposure comes on top of exposure to more chemicals from cosmetics, plastics and through air pollution.

The conclusion therefore is that the current food standards for pesticides are unsafe because the toxic effects of one pesticide could add to toxic effects of other pesticides and other chemicals we are exposed to, regulators have severely underestimated the risks involved

This was finally recognised by the European commission and the parliament when they changed the residue regulation in 2005 to take mixture effects into account. However, policymakers made a fundamental mistake at that time when they mandated the EFSA to develop the methods for assessing mixture effects. Despite having methods readily available in 2005 now, nine years later, these methods have still not been published by EFSA. This leaves consumers, especially the vulnerable, unprotected.

Last year we began an intensive research project looking into the background of this delay. We wondered how it was possible that EFSA neglected its mission to protect people's health for so many years. We learned that massive infiltration by industry linked academics within the authority's scientific panels was the main cause.

"Over 70 per cent of these experts were closely linked to industry"

And this happened not only in EFSA but also within the World Health Organisation (WHO) on this issue. The industry-linked people appeared to work in a tight network and showed their commitment by trying to get seats in all the relevant scientific bodies. However, these same academics didn't perform research as you would expect them to do.

The WHO was a 'walk-over' since industry-linked experts simply outnumbered all the rest. Over 70 per cent of these experts were closely linked to industry. Not one of them was an active researcher.

Within EFSA these same experts have exerted control over the authority's pesticide panel and state in a series of EFSA opinions that mixture toxicity was generally not relevant. While this opinion ignores the available scientific evidence, several experts from national institutes within EFSA's panel considered these ideas credible, unaware of any hidden agenda.

Finally after six years the commission discovered that the pesticide panel was frustrating the process and forced EFSA into a U-turn. The panel however didn't want to give up and one year later EFSA had to withdraw the panel's mandate because of a 'lack of progress'.

Industry, however, insists. The very same industry-linked people now gathering in the EU's Acropolis research programme, led by the food traders group Freshfel, are promoting yet another industry tool to water down standards and "prove pesticide use is safe".

Again EFSA is apparently unaware of its intentions and continues to cooperate closely with the programme.

Our main conclusion is that there is a lack of professionalism within EFSA and a lack of awareness on scientific integrity. We have proposed that EFSA should act just as the US environmental protection agency , and put in place a 'science integrity officer' whose job is to change the culture at the agency, and restore independent science by involving independent scientists.