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Conflicts of interest in EU food safety

Public health is subject to undue industry influence, writes COLIN TODHUNTER

IN BRITAIN and Europe, we are being poisoned. 
The hijacking of food and food safety puts us all at risk.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is the keystone of European Union risk assessment regarding food and feed safety. 
The EFSA is supposed to provide independent scientific advice and clear communication on existing and emerging risks. It is also supposed to be independent. 
Although funded by the EU, the authority operates separately from the European Commission, European Parliament and EU member states.
But according to a recent independent screening performed by the watchdog body Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and journalist Stephane Horel, almost 60 per cent of experts sitting on EFSA panels have direct or indirect links with industries regulated by the agency.
The report Unhappy Meal: The European Food Safety Authority's Independence Problem identifies major loopholes in EFSA's independence policy and finds that EFSA's new rules for assessing its experts, implemented in 2012 after several conflict-of-interest scandals, have failed to improve the situation.
The authors warn that this situation casts severe doubt on the credibility of the scientific output of the key body responsible for food safety at the EU, with the agency issuing recommendations and risk assessments on crucial public health issues such as food additives, packaging, genetically modified organisms, contaminants and pesticides.
According to the report the EFSA's new rules for assessing its experts' interests enable dozens of figures with multiple commercial interests - consultancy contracts, research funding etc - to be granted full membership of EFSA panels, including a majority of panel chairs and vice-chairs.
The number of conflicts of interest is very worrying. Experts with conflicts of interest dominate all panels but one. 
The bulk of conflicts are from research funding and private consultancy contracts, but certain crucial institutions for scientists such as scientific societies and journals are also targeted by industry lobbying.
The report also shows that EFSA failed to properly implement its own new rules in several instances. 
Researcher and campaigner Martin Pigeon says he hoped this report would be an eye-opener on the necessity to defend public research integrity from the threats posed on public health by industry influence.
And on the heels of that report comes news that the European Commission's health and consumers directorate has shortlisted a director of the biggest EU food industry lobby group, FoodDrinkEurope, among the candidates to the EFSA management board. 
Beate Kettlitz works in a leading position for the lobby group, which represents all major European food and drink corporations. 
Moreover, it is the second year in a row that the commission has tried to appoint representatives from FoodDrinkEurope as members of the board.
A year ago the European Commission nominated FoodDrinkEurope's executive director Mella Frewen, a former Monsanto lobbyist. Her appointment was rejected by the European Parliament and the member states.
EFSA's management board is key. It is the food agency's governing body. 
Everyone eating food in Europe is affected by its decisions. 
The fact that the European Commission shortlists a food industry lobbyist once again on its board is a warning signal for all those concerned about the protection of consumers and the environment.
Such a professional on EFSA's board would by definition be a permanent threat to the EU food safety agency's independence.
Seven seats on EFSA's management board are up for renewal in June 2014. The European Commission has published a list of 23 names, mostly from national food safety agencies, research institutes and academia for the EU Parliament's consideration and the member states' decision. 
But four persons among those shortlisted also have interests in the food industry.
The commission's justification for these nominations is an industry-friendly interpretation of EFSA's founding regulation, which states that four of the 14 board members "shall have a background in organisations representing consumers and other interests in the food chain."
In their recent joint press release Corporate Observatory Europe and Testbiotech note that nowhere does the regulation say that the food industry should be involved. 
In fact quite 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."
Researcher William F Engdahl has already alluded to a "cancer of corruption" between the biotech sector and the EFSA. 
And this year Friends of the Earth Europe and GM Freeze released their own research that expressed serious health-related concerns over the excessive and largely unmonitored use of the glyphosate weedkiller in Europe.
In 2011 Earth Open Source said that official approval of glyphosate had been rash, problematic and deeply flawed. 
A comprehensive review of existing data released in June 2011 by Earth Open Source suggested that industry regulators in Europe had known for years that glyphosate causes birth defects in the embryos of laboratory animals. 
Questions were thus raised about the role of the powerful agro-industry in rigging data pertaining to product safety and its undue influence on regulatory bodies.
The aim of powerful private companies is to make money. 
Any safety requirements are secondary concerns, if they are concerns at all. Therefore we expect bodies like the EFSA to take up these concerns on our behalf and to resist the food lobby and agribusiness in their attempts to translate their massive financial clout into political influence.
On its website the EFSA states that food is essential to life and that it is committed to ensuring food safety in Europe. 
The evidence may suggest otherwise.


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