In 2012, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) adopted a new independence policy to address criticism that it was not managing conflicts of interest adequately. But a report prepared by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO), a group seeking to expose private sector lobbying in Europe, says industry's influence over the body is still "dismaying."
Experts with conflicts of interest dominate all EFSA panels but one, according to the report, which was released yesterday. In the worst example, 17 of the 20 members of the Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies have a total of 113 conflicts of interest, according to the investigation.
A spokesperson for EFSA says that the agency can't immediately react to individual claims, but that it will review the report and consider its recommendations. He also says EFSA "applies a robust set of internal mechanisms and working processes to safeguard the independence of its scientific work." Sue Davies, chair of EFSA's management board, echoed that sentiment in a written statement today. "The Management Board is confident that the policy EFSA has in place to ensure independence in its scientific work is robust," the statement says.
The report comes at a sensitive time for EFSA. French food-safety expert Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, who headed the agency since 2006, stepped down unexpectedly in July to take up a position in the French government; EFSA is looking for a replacement. The agency has also launched a "transparency initiative" and hosted a conference on transparency earlier this month.
CEO has taken aim at EFSA before, and Martin Pigeon, a spokesperson for the group, acknowledges that EFSA has improved the way it handles potential conflicts of interest. "They are really taking it very seriously now," he says. As part of EFSA's new policy, experts consulted by the agency have to file detailed declarations of interest which are screened on a case-by-case basis. But the forms on which these declarations are made are ill-conceived, CEO says; for instance, they don't include boxes for common activities such as giving a conference presentation, even though many meetings are industry-sponsored. In 10 instances, EFSA failed to rigorously implement its own rules, the report charges.
However, most of the report's criticism stems from the fact that CEO defines the term "conflict of interest" more broadly than EFSA does. EFSA sees a potential problem only when someone serving on a particular panel has ties to the commercial sector related to that panel—for instance, when a researcher with ties to a feed company sits on the panel on animal feed. But CEO says any interests that fall within EFSA's remit should be considered; in other words, a scientist with ties to the chocolate industry can't sit on the animal feed panel either.
"When EFSA thinks of conflicts of interest, it thinks about personal corruption, the secret agent narrative," Pigeon says. "But the problem is more systemic. When you are a toxicologist and you are increasingly paid by industry to design a study the industry way, so it can go through the regulatory process, then it becomes more difficult not to look at studies from an industry viewpoint," he argues.
EFSA is much smaller than its U.S. counterpart, the Food and Drug Administration, so rather than depending on in-house experts, it largely relies on unpaid outside experts. But research policies in many European countries encourage researchers to work with the private sector, making it increasingly harder to find experts who don't have any conflict of interest at all.
One way to solve the problem would be to create a class of independent experts, Pigeon says, for instance through a "European school of independent expertise." Or the European Union could decide to adopt the U.S. model and allow EFSA to hire more in-house scientists. "Another way would be to have toxicology studies and safety studies done by public or independent labs rather than by the producers themselves," Pigeon says.
As Davies notes in her statement, "these are issues that EFSA cannot resolve on its own, and need to be part of a wider debate." In the meantime, the CEO report argues that anyone leaving a job in the commercial sector should be barred from becoming a panel member for at least 5 years; now, that "cooling-off period" is 2 years and only applies to panel chairs and vice-chairs. The report also advocates scrapping the current 25% ceiling for how much industry funding is acceptable for EFSA experts and adopting a zero-tolerance policy instead.