The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) was created in 2002 in the aftermath of the mad-cow disease crisis. It is responsible for the risk assessment of food and feed in the EU, including GM.
EU regulations on GMOs, which the Authority is tasked with implementing, set high standards of safety for the environment and consumers, based on the precautionary principle. It is stated by the EU that
“... genetically modified food and feed should only be authorised for placing on the Community market after a scientific evaluation of the highest possible standard, to be undertaken under the responsibility of the European Food Safety Authority, of any risks which they present for human and animal health and, as the case may be, for the environment ...”
It was this science-oriented remit which led the EFSA executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle to declare that the Authority had “brought science to centre stage in food policy-making” (see TRANSPARENCY IS A FINE WORD - December 2012).
In 2003, the EFSA created its own department for biotechnology, including a GMO panel.
What happened next was that the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI, see Below) got a foot in the regulatory door. In fact, key positions in the EFSA expert bodies on GM have always been filled with people closely involved with the ILSI.
The International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI)
The ILSI claims to promote “science that improves public health and well-being”.
Nevertheless, it has lobbied for agricultural biotechnology since 1996, and seems to have succeeded in writing the European standards for GM risk assessment.
The work of the ILSI has faced criticism for many years, and the World Health Organisation has explicitly reprehended its work for the tobacco industry.
The Institute is funded by companies such as Monsanto, Dow AgroSciences, DuPont and Bayer.
Under this heavy ILSI influence, the guiding principle for evaluation of GM food and feed safety became 'comparative assessment' (a.k.a. 'substantial equivalence') which has no scientific definition, and no biological basis.
COMMENT The principle may have been borrowed from the routine evaluation of animal feed. This involves checking the broad nutritional chemistry (total protein, carbohydrate, fat, known anti-nutrients etc.) and testing the animals' performance (for example in terms of meat production) in comparison with existing feeds on the market. This is necessary for ensuring that commercially available feed is of an acceptable quality before it is sold to farmers. It is not a safety assessment.
The historical link between the EFSA and mad-cow disease is interesting. This horrific neuro-degenerative disease was traced to a novel contagious particle which was spread through our food chain by novel feed. The novel feed in question included extracts of organisms never previously present in cattle-feed. These added bits were deemed a useful way of producing chemically-correct feed based on a crude, biology-free understanding of the science of nutrition. Attempts to question its safety at the time were treated with contempt.
In GMOs, the added particles aren't just rogue proteins. They are rogue viral-, bacterial-, plant-, animal-, human- and entirely synthetic-particles of DNA. Each one of these has the potential to create rogue proteins directly or indirectly. And each can be transported and multiplied in microbes. So far, voices of concern about the safety of GM have been treated with contempt.
Is the EFSA mindful of why it came to exist?
If you're interested in the details of the scandals about the industry/regulatory revolving doors, read all about them in A Playground of the Biotech Industry? Need for reform at the European Food Safety Authority, Testbiotech, November 2012, at www.testbiotech.de/node/736