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22nd Sep 2018

No conflict of interest at EU food agency, director says

  • Efsa relies on industry experts to make assessments (Photo: Flickr.com)

The head of the European Food Safety Authority (Efsa), Bernhard Url, has rebuffed allegations that his staff is too close to industry.

Speaking to MEPs in the budgetary control committee on Monday (20 January), he said he does not employ anybody from the food sector.

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“People that are employed with industry are completely excluded from all the workthat Efsa does, so there is no possibility that people who are employed in the industry would ever be in a working group or a panel with Efsa,” he noted.

The agency, based in Parma, Italy, was set up in 2002 to assess food chain risks.

It relies on some 1,500 unpaid external experts from around the Europe to do its work.

The MEPs grilled Url as part of the EU’s regular budgetary oversight procedure.

Efsa has had several run-ins with pro-transparency campaigners and with the European Court of Auditors, the EU’s financial watchdog.

The court in 2012 said two experts were providing consultancy work to a private organisation, while simultaneously issuing Efsa expertise on the same subject.

“[But] in both cases, Efsa concluded that there was no conflict of interest,” the auditors noted.

More recently, in December, the Brussels-based NGO, the Corporate Europe Observatory (COE), wrote to Url saying that another expert on one of his panels is being financed by agrochemicals producers and works as a lobbyist in Brussels.

The expert sits on Efsa’s pesticide panel.

But he also directs the Opera Research Center in Italy, which has a branch office in Brussels run by five people.

Opera is said to have lobbied EU lawmakers on issues like EU-wide farm subsidies and the impact of pesticides on bees.

COE says Opera’s scientific committee includes representatives from top agri-frims, such as the Swiss-based Syngenta, which makes “neonicotinoid” pesticides - banned by the European Commission last May.

In a written response sent to the EU parliament committee, Efsa said it is crucial to seek out the best scientists to help it carry out its risk assessments.

It added that industry experts on its panels work on issues “outside the scope” of the panels’ remit “and hence do not constitute a conflict of interest.”

“Efsa is taking this question of independence of the scientific expertise extremely seriously,” Url added.

He said the agency evaluated some 7,000 annual declarations of interest in 2012, which were crosschecked with around 33,000 meeting agenda items.

Monday’s hearing was part of the EU parliament’s preliminary scrutiny of 31 EU agencies.

The committee is set to vote on its reports on their work in March. A plenary vote is scheduled for April.

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