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Conflict of Interest at the European Food Safety Authority: Enough is enough!

An Open Letter to the European Parliament’s Budget Control Committee
cc : Members of the Management Board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), Commissionner V. Andriukaitis, DG SANTE, European Commission

Brussels, 2 March 2016

Dear Members of the European Parliament’s Budget Control Committee,

On 26 January 2016, EFSA announced it was hiring a new director of communications, Ms Barbara Gallani, starting next May 1st. Ms Gallani has a long career in the food sector. There is a question, though: today, this person still is the Chief Scientist of the Food and Drink Federation, the food industry’s trade federation in the UK. As a lobbyist, Ms Gallani was also applying to become a member of EFSA’s Management Board, in one of the seats kept for “representatives of the food chain” there. She since withdrew her application. (1)

With this appointment, EFSA once again indicates that, at best, it does not understand its political environment, or that, at worst, it does not care about its independence from the sector it is regulating. Whichever way, this decision was a disaster for what was left of EFSA’s credibility.

Enough is enough. We are writing to you to express our dismay. We have been discussing for many years with EFSA to try to convince this EU agency to reinforce its integrity, become more transparent and independent. We have been patient and constructive, participated in countless public and private consultations, open discussions and conferences. The European Parliament also, year after year since 2011, across political groups, made clear it wanted the agency to improve its reputation and in particular impose for two years a cooling off period on financial conflicts of interests.

In its follow-up report to the Parliament’s demands, the agency promised improvements but refused to close the loophole allowing conflicts of interest to happen (point 10). Experts with financial interests in companies regulated by EFSA can still be found in its scientific panels (and working groups), because the agency keeps evaluating these persons’ interests only according to the specific topic of the group, not whether these interests are de facto regulated by EFSA. The more specific the topic, the bigger the loophole. With this system, a scientist’s research on fries paid by a fast food company can be appointed to a scientific panel on hamburgers; different topic indeed, but is this really convincing as an independence policy?

Some things did change at the agency. Small things. But too small. After a series of critical rulings on EFSA’s independence policy, the European Ombudsman suggested she might launch a self-task investigation into EFSA’s procedures on independence. Media reports keep accumulating (2) on the existence of conflicts of interest at the agency, which now is so afraid of media exposure that it regularly declines media requests. The agency keeps blaming bad journalism and says it needs to improve its communications. By hiring a lobbyist from the food industry?

EFSA fears not being able to find enough qualified experts to fill its panels would it implement the Parliament’s demand. But there are simple solutions to this, such as hearing any expert whose expertise would be considered interesting but not giving him/her a say on the panel’s work.

The agency has another, much better excuse: it cannot pay these experts and hardly has any budget to do research on its own. Free help is rare, and public help, from national agencies, research centers and universities, is being cut. That leaves lobbyists more space.

Having to sacrifice independence to operational constraints is a rather desperate situation for a public risk assessment agency. But the blame falls essentially on the Commission for not giving EFSA a budget to at least pay 200 independent experts for the EU’s 500 million citizens’ food safety. EFSA’s budget is even facing cuts. The European Commission has systematically dismissed MEPs’ concerns on conflicts of interest at EFSA for the past years.

We now ask you to do two things:
- postpone EFSA’s budget discharge as long as they do not enact a serious independence policy on regulated commercial interests. They have the perfect opportunity to do it now since they have planned a revision of their independence policy for this year.
- postpone EFSA’s budget discharge as long as the European Commission does not credibly commit to provide substantial additional budget to EFSA to pay independent experts and develop in-house research.

With hope,
Corporate Europe Observatory
Fondation Sciences Citoyennes
Groupe international d’études transdisciplinaires (GIET)
Health & Environment Alliance (HEAL)
Pesticides Action Network Europe

(1) Two members of the Management Board already come from the food industry.
(2) See Appendix.

Originally posted on 2 March 2016

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