The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), seeking to deflect criticism over the independence of its work, announced moves to clarify disclosure rules and guidelines on who can serve as scientific experts.
EFSA new measures are a response to criticism that the EU agency has often relied on industry expertise in its evaluations of products, including the safety of genetically modified crops.
But clearly the agency is strengthening oversight in response to outside criticism. For example, for the first time EFSA will perform random audits of disclosure forms submitted by scientific experts to determine potential conflicts of interest.
The announcement did not address one criticism of EFSA, that it is beholden to the companies it is supposed to be overseeing because it lacks an independent source of revenue to finance evaluations of commercial products.
A recent report by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and the Earth Open Source (EAS), documents cases where EFSA uses industry scientists and information in risk assessments saying its EU-funded budget – nearly €77 million in 2011 – is not adequate for the safety and regulatory work it does.
Among its recommendations, the ‘Conflicts on the menu’ report calls for assessments to be done by independent laboratories paid with public funds rather than industry resources or development of a fee system that can fund independent evaluations.
The Commission is weighing a fee-based scheme that industries would pay when they submit products for approval, a scheme similar to the way the London-based European Medicines Agency finances evaluations of pharmaceutical products.
Huber Deluyker, director of the science strategy and coordination unit at EFSA, defended the independence of the agency’s research and praised those who volunteer time to provide expertise. “Sometimes people may not like the answers, sometimes it’s industry that doesn’t like the answers, sometimes it’s others, sometimes it’s both, but if there are criticisms we take them seriously,” he said.