No place for food lobby on EFSA board, says NGO

The European food safety authority's (EFSA) independence 'remains problematic' due to the food industry lobby's strong influence over 'scientific opinion', says Martin Pigeon.

By Martin Pigeon

06 May 2014

On 7 May, EU member states sitting in the council of permanent representatives will vote to renew almost half of the management board of the EFSA.

EFSA is responsible for the risk assessment of all issues related to food and feed safety in the EU including genetically engineered plants, pesticides and food additives. Its management board is the food agency's governing body, also in charge of its independence, and seven seats are up for renewal. 

Following recommendations from a handful of MEPs in the European parliament, two food industry lobbyists - Beate Kettlitz (director for food safety at FoodDrinkEurope, the umbrella trade association for the food industry in Brussels) and Jan Mousing (director at the Danish agriculture and food council, a lobby group representing the interests of the Danish food industry) - have both been shortlisted as top candidates for these positions.

"EFSA's independence remains problematic today, an October 2013 report we published found almost two thirds of its experts with links to companies falling under the agencies remit, with the majority of these links being of a financial nature"

Two other current members of the board, also reapplying for the position, have strong ties to the agri-food industry: Piet Vanthemsche, from farmers' lobby COPA and who also sits on the board of an agri-investment firm, and Milan Kovac, who works at the Slovakian ministry of agriculture, but was until 2011 a board member of an industry think-tank (ILSI Europe) who has been key in influencing EFSA's scientific opinions in the past.

EFSA's independence remains problematic today, an October 2013 report we published found almost two thirds of its experts with links to companies falling under the agencies remit, with the majority of these links being of a financial nature.

This has strong consequences for food safety in the EU, with numerous complaints and controversies about the quality of the authority's scientific output, the most well-known being on Bisphenol A, aspartame, GM crops and various pesticides. Controversies are normal in science but is it really necessary to further discredit the agency's work by putting at its head lobbyists whose job is to influence it on behalf of the food industry?

The coordinators of the parliament's committee for the environment, public health and food safety (ENVI), in a closed-door meeting on 16 January joined by Spanish conservative MEP Pilar Ayuso, apparently decided that this was not a problem. Among the eight candidates they recommended, the two lobbyists from the food industry, Kettlitz and Mousing, were given top priority.

In contrast, the European parliament and member states voted not to give a board position to a FoodDrinkEurope director two years ago over conflict of interest fears, and parliament, this time in plenary, voted a resolution in early April to demand that EFSA strongly improves its independence policy by imposing a ''two-year cooling-off period to all material interests related to the commercial agri-food sector''.

Within the MEPs involved in the decision, few agreed to answer corporate Europe observatory's (CEO) questions and none provided insights on the debates that led to the decision. Ayuso, whose views are important as EFSA's contact person in the parliament, failed to answer repeated questions on the matter.

From the coordinators, only two MEPs replied: Chris Davies, a UK MEP from the ALDE group, explained his support of these candidates, saying, ''The expertise and practical experience of food industry representatives can contribute to good decision making by EFSA''. The German socialist MEP Mathias Groote, chair of the ENVI committee who communicated the meeting's decision to the parliament's president, replied that such recommendations were ''totally in line'' with EFSA's founding regulation, not specifying whether he himself supported these applications.

EFSA's founding regulation indeed states that four of its 14 board members "shall have a background in organisations representing consumers and other interests in the food chain". But nowhere is it mentioned that the food industry in particular would need to be involved. On the contrary, EFSA's 2011 independence rules stipulate that "persons employed by industry shall not be allowed to become members of EFSA's scientific committee, scientific panels and working groups".

It is clear that the food industry should not have a say in the way its products' safety is assessed by public agencies; if industry employees are not allowed among EFSA's scientists and staff, why should they be allowed on EFSA's board?

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