The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was set up to protect consumers. That’s their job. And yet staff at the agency, who ought to be deciding independently on what new products are permitted to come to market, are working closely with the food industry itself.
As documents from the authority reveal, the Chairman of the Panel on Nutrition, Albert Flynn, also works for the U.S. company Kraft. Up until March 2011, EFSA management board member Jiri Ruprich worked for Danone in the Czech Republic, while since 2000 panel member Carlo Agostoni has received conference speaking fees from companies such as Nestle, Danone, Heinz, Hipp, Humana and Mead Johnson.
This is alarming, because what may or may not end up on the plates of European consumers is determined by Europe’s highest food supervisory authority. Headquartered in Parma, Italy, with 450 employees and an annual budget of at least 73 million euros, EFSA is the top cop for food risk assessment in Europe.
Critics are now accusing it of failing to take on conflicts of interest, despite several scandals. “It’s just not acceptable that representatives of an industry whose products are to be assessed are sitting in just that agency that’s supposed to assess them”, complains Timo Lange of LobbyControl.
A perfect marketing tool
The biggest obstacle to reform are existing EU regulations. Under them, EFSA’s members are not prohibited from acting on behalf of the food industry, so long as they admit their conflict in a so-called declaration of interests.
That this is far from acting independently is revealed by the example of Albert Flynn, from Ireland, who heads the EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies. Under his chairmanship, a particularly delicate decision related to the approval of a product from Kraft Foods Europe, “Biscuits for Breakfast”, was published on 21 July 2011. That the nutritionist is at the same time a member of a Kraft Foods advisory board evidently failed to ruffle the board.
Flynn’s panel decided in favour of Kraft’s application for its cereal product with a higher proportion of slowly digestible starch (SDS). According to the manufacturer, SDS should slow the rise of sugar levels in the blood after eating, which is good news for diabetics.
For food manufacturers, it’s about money and market share. Claims that foods will confer better health are a perfect marketing tool. If a manufacturer can persuade a consumer of a particular health benefit from a food product, it boosts its own market share too.
Independence, openness, transparency?
The background for EFSA’s assessments is the Nutrition and Health Claim Regulation (NHCR), in force since 2007. Foods with health claims may be sold only if those claims have been scientifically proven. Investigating these claims is the responsibility of the EFSA.
Strong links, however, exist not only between EFSA and manufacturers, but with industry-related organisations. Flynn, for example, is also a member of scientific working groups of the lobby group International Life Sciences Institute Europe.
Members include corporations such as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, Danone, Bayer, and Kraft. Other EFSA experts have also taken up positions at the institute, which has been placed by the World Health Organisation on its blacklist of lobbying organisations.
On its website EFSA writes that its activities are defined by fundamental values such as ‘independence, openness, transparency and responsiveness’. Critics are continuing to demand that they finally practice what they preach.
Conflicts of interest as private sector beckons
"European health authorities stand accused", reads the front-page headline in Le Monde, which reports on suspected conflicts of interest in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) and the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA).
The EMA has notably been criticised for being slow to withdraw the drug Mediator (benfluorex), which caused the death of an estimated 2,000 people in France, even though it received warnings about the drug’s potential dangers as early as 1998. Several consumer groups also suspect EMA experts of conflicts of interest: chief among the agency's former executive director, Thomas Lönngren who now works as a consultant for the pharmaceuticals industry.
For its part, the role of the EFSA has notably been criticised by the Corporate Europe Observatory(CEO), which has attacked procedures to approve the genetically modified potato Amflora, produced by German corporation BASF and authorised in Europe since 2010. According to CEO, 12 of the EFSA 21-member experts’ group which approved Amflora in June 2009 had conflicts of interest:
In the years or months that preceded their deliberations on Amflora, the 12 researchers in question temporarily worked as consultants for agrochemical companies or were involved in scientific projects financed by pro-GMO industries […] In particular, eight of them were associated with the International Life Science Institute (ILSI) [see above article], a non-profit international organisation, founded in 1978 by Heinz, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Procter & Gamble and Kraft, which has since been joined by dozens of companies from the food, agrochemical and pharmaceuticals industries.