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European Parliament votes to ban industry-connected scientists from Food Safety Authority

Thursday, May 01, 2014 by: J. D. Heyes
Tags: European Parliament, conflicts of interest, Food Safety Authority

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(NaturalNews) Due to a rash of conflict-of-interest scandals at the European Food Safety Authority, the European Parliament voted recently on a resolution that would ban scientists who have ties to the agriculture and food industries from being employed by the agency.

The resolution urges the EFSA to implement "a two-year cooling-off period to all material interests related to the commercial agrifood sector," a measure that would considerably improve the agency's damaged reputation and compromised integrity, reports said.

The European Parliament labeled the current procedure for screening EFSA experts' interests "burdensome," "subject to criticism" and insufficient to "dispel fears about the Authority's expert impartiality." That said, the parliament did acknowledge the "progress" brought about by a reform policy the agency implemented in 2011. Still, parliamentarians questioned the reform effort's "credibility and effectiveness."

The parliament had once postponed the EFSA's budget discharge in 2012 due to conflict-of-interest scandals and requested that the agency implement reform measures. But a Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) report titled "Unhappy Meal," which was published in October, revealed that 59 percent of the agency's scientific panel members still had direct or indirect links to companies whose activities fell under the agency's purview.

Closing loopholes

"In other words, the report shows almost two thirds of EFSA's panel scientists still have conflicts of interest and cannot be considered independent from the sector they are regulating," said CorporateEurope.org, a site that is supportive of the ban.

The report argues that the primary loophole in the EFSA's current policy on independency is that it only assesses its experts' interests according to a narrow, specific set of definitions and responsibilities (for example, additives, feed, GMOs, pesticides or sweeteners), rather than the agency's broad mission of food and agriculture at large.

The narrow assessment allows the agency to work with scientists who have financial ties to big-name corporations in the food industry, primarily in the form of research funding and consultancy contracts, while only appearing to preserve its independence.

That kind of a loophole would be closed by the European Parliament's latest resolution, though CEO considers the two-year cooling off period to be too short.

"It is unacceptable that the food industry has a say in the public risk assessment of its products," said CEO researcher Martin Pigeon. "This vote by the European Parliament is a crucial step for food safety in Europe. A cooling-off period, if correctly implemented by the agency, will keep scientists with such conflicts of interest at bay and considerably strengthen the agency's integrity."

He added: "Strong scrutiny will be needed to make sure that the EFSA does implement the Parliament's demands."

No change anytime soon, it sounds like

Top officials at the EFSA disagreed, however. Though the agency is once more revising its independence policy, recent statements by the newly appointed agency chief, Bernard Url, suggest that meaningful change is not likely anytime soon.

"Making the conflict of interest rules stricter is not the way forward," Url said recently at a meeting of EFSA's Stakeholder Consultative Platform.

He did, however, also say that his agency must become more transparent in order to meet rapid technological changes in the food and agricultural industries.

"Our first priority is to get the science right," he told EU Parliament members. "We need the best experts, methodology and data" to enable EFSA to remain "at the cutting edge of risk assessment."

He also defended the agency.

"EFSA in 2014 does not have a problem with conflict of interest, but with perceived conflicts of interest," he said. "To address these concerns, a transparency boost is needed, to complement the impartiality safeguards that are in place."





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