Europe's food safety watch-dog, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), celebrated its 10th anniversary in November 2012.
The occasion was marked at a conference in its Parma headquarters during which the creation of the Authority was described as a “defining moment” in which food safety in the EU “turned firmly towards science” and “brought science to centre stage in food policy-making”. Executive director, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle described a number of “success stories” which highlighted the EFSA's ten years of “transparency, independence and scientific excellence”.
Meanwhile, outside the conference venue, farmers, NGOs, students and local activists were staging a demonstration. They were calling for fundamental reforms of the EFSA and EU law, in particular to:
1. prevent conflicts of interest
2. ensure substances are tested independently and not by the industry itself
3. establish a code of scientific practice
4. improve transparency and accountability
5. ensure wider participation.
Earlier in the year, a report prepared by Corporate Europe Observatory (CEO) and Earth Open Source (EOS) was released . This raised serious questions about the independence of EFSA advice due to its reliance on industry data and industry-linked 'experts'.
There seems to be a major and direct conflict between the EFSA's perception of itself, and how the interested public perceives it. How did things come to such a pass?
In the early months of 2012, the EFSA was steeped in controversy over conflicts of interest in its management and advisory panels. Scrutiny by the European Court of Auditors concluded that the Authorities independence policy was “inadequate”. In light of the on-going concerns, a hold was put on the its spending approval by the European budget committee.
The problems highlighted by this controversy included EFSA experts connections to food or biotech companies, or to the the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) which claims to promote “science that improves public health and well-being”, but is nevertheless an industry-funded lobby group.
Data used in EFSA safety assessments were not peer-reviewed nor published, and were cloaked under commercial confidentiality clauses which prevented any possible challenge by independent scientists. Added to these were failures in the Declaration of Interests of EFSA panel members (in breach of its own rules) and a failure to take action on them
In March 2012, the EFSA announced it was implementing rules on how to manage declarations of interest and independence in its scientific decision-making process. Its updated rules state that where a potential conflict of interest is identified, the scientific expert or individual is prohibited from participating in the EFSA's scientific work or taking up certain roles. For example, scientists currently employed by industry (including those who work in full-time consultancy) “are categorically excluded from becoming a member of any of EFSA's scientific groups, including the Scientific Committee, its Panels and their Working Groups”.
Fine words, but things began to look pear-shaped only two months later. Diana Banati, who had been a centre of controversy in 2010 over her undeclared position on the board of the ILSI while chairing the EFSA (a problem dismissed by the Authority at the time as 'unfounded attacks'), was finally asked to resign because she was rejoining the ILSI.. (Note that such revolving doors enable expertise and contacts gained from working in the EU body to fall into 'enemy' hands. No cooling off period is required on leaving the EFSA to prevent this.)
What happened next was that the European Commission (EC), apparently oblivious to the recent EFSA scandals and its announcement on Declarations of Interest “threw some oil on the fire” by nominating Mella Frewen for the Authority's management board. Mella Frewen is a former Monsanto employee and leading light in the food industry lobby group FoodDrinkEurope; she is known for her role in lobbying to allow the contamination of unauthorised GM plants in the food chain. Her nomination was rejected unitedly by the European Parliament.
And then, along came Séralini's unwelcome long-term rat feeding study which raised serious concerns about the safety of both NK603 GM maize, approved by the EFSA in 2003, and the herbicide, Roundup, NK603 is transformed to accumulate(see GM MAIZE NOT SAFE TO EAT - October 2012).
The EFSA immediately and correctly ordered a review of the new study. This apparently took the form of a rapidly convened telephone conference of the EFSA Emerging Risks Unit, which set up an ad hoc panel. The outcome was a hastily prepared dismissive preliminary assessment peer-reviewed by the same people who had drafted the original favourable opinions on NK603 and Roundup. It pronounced the study “of insufficient scientific quality to be considered as valid for risk assessment” with conclusions which weren't “scientifically sound”. Green MEP, Corinne Lepage, has pointed out that the new opinion was nothing other than a copy-and-paste of all the pro-GM lobby criticisms and attacks aimed at Séralini as soon as his paper was published.
To reach a final opinion, the EFSA demanded the scientists submit all their raw data for evaluation.
Séralini, however, is very wise to the industry-links and closed-shop-culture existing in the EFSA. He offered to release his data providing all industry data on the GM maize were also made available, and providing the re-assessment was carried out by independent reviewers.
Having backed itself into a corner, the EFSA duly announced it had released its data from the 2003 and 2009 assessments of NK603 to Séralini.
A week later, the Authority complained Séralini had not reciprocated (COMMENT Although there's no mention of the independent scientific review panel that Séralini also stipulated)
Séralini's team inspected the EFSA data and what it found has scary implications: there were no blood or tissue data on which they could work. One of the co-authors commented “this is really a con trick”. Questions are raised by these seemingly superficial data used to declare a GM maize 'safe' which urgently need to be addressed:
- is the EFSA still hiding data while pretending to have made everything available?
- is the EFSA oblivious to the significant gaps in the data supplied by industry?
- is the EFSA aware of the shortcomings of the data supplied, but under pressure to look the other way?
In other words, the Authority must either be dishonest, ignorant or corrupt (or all three), but there's clear evidence it's not fit for its purpose. It's quite possible that no GM food or feed approved by the EFSA is safe.
The report prepared by CEO and EOS highlighted another major source of EFSA weakness. The Authority is dangerously under-resourced. Its experts are not paid, but are expected to examine vast quantities of industry data in their own time. The dangers are, of course, that the reviews will not be thorough, and that only people with a vested interest in the approval of the GM crop will come forward, and that the biotech industry (well aware of the limitations of the approval process) will routinely submit huge quantities of padded data to swamp the paucity of relevant information actually present.
At the end of October 2012 the EC, EFSA, and representatives from 16 EU countries were happy to attend a Workshop on the Risk Assessment Requirements for GM food and feed with respect to Toxicology and Allergenicity run by two major biotech lobbyists, CropLife International and EuropaBio. Proof, if anyone needs it, that despite all the scandals and declarations of reform, it is business as usual in the EFSA.
There's something very wrong with our food safety regulation. Shocking though it may seem, the impression that the EC is behind it all is inescapable.
On the surface, it looks as if the EFSA is incompetent not only to run itself but also to oversee food safety. Yet it's still there, saying it's doing all the right things while nothing actually changes, and there are no major reforms in sight.
The Commission is well aware that by generating enough confusion to prevent a consensus on GM approvals, it can step in and make the final (positive) decision. This kind of orchestrated confusion designed to get its own way has been practiced by the biotech industry for years. To ensure dependence on industry 'experts' and 'information', the EC promotes biotech-friendly people into key positions in the approval process, while starving the EFSA of the necessary resources to do its job. In this way, the EFSA is reduced to a front-group carrying out the Commission's bidding at arm's length, and industry gets to write all the rules.
It seems the brave Séralini and his team have pitted themselves against the entire global biotech industry and its army of lobbyists, plus all the major world-wide administrations and all the scientists under industry-, lobbyist- and government-control.
But, with your support, the truth will out.
- Nathan Gray, EFSA to implement updated rules on conflicts of interest, Food Navigator, 5.03.12
- Sean Poulter, EU watchdog forced out over links to 'Frankenstein food' firms, Daily Mail, 10.05.12
- EU member states refuse the nomination of ex-Monsanto employee for EFSA management board, Corporate Europe Observatory, 8.06.12
- Martin Banks, EFSA's anniversary hit by protest over 'industry capture' of food safety, The Parliament, 14.11.12
- Campaigners demand Change at EFSA, Corporate Europe Observatory, 3.11.12
- Peter Crosskey, EP slams EFSA bias, www.arc2020.eu, 9.10.12
- EFSA hands Seralini data on NK603 corn but gets nothing in return, Agra-Net, 30.10.12
- GM: Seralini team accuses EFSA (translation by GM Watch), www.europ1.fr, 26.10.12
- Michael Haddon, EFSA delays Final Review of Genetic Corn Study to Mid-November, www.nasdaq.com, 30.10.12
- Workshop on the Risk Assessment Requirements for GM food and feed with respect to Toxicology and Allergenicity, EuropaBio, 30.10.12
- Christoph Then, The European Food Safety Authority: Using double standards when assessing feeding studies, Testbiotech Backgrounder, 30.10.12
- Food safety decided by industry-linked experts and industry data, Corporate Europe Observatory and Earth Open Source, 14.02.12
- Dave Keating, EFSA chair resigns over conflict of interest, European Voice, May 2012
- EFSA Chair Moves to Food Industry Lobby Group, Corporate Europe Observatory, 9.05.12
- European Parliament postpones EFSA budget approval over conflicts of interest, Corporate Europe Observatory, 10.05.12
- Chair of Management Board at EFSA quits because of conflict of interests, Test biotech, 9.05.12
- Guillaume Malaurie, GMO: European Agency with two hats, Le Nouvel Observateur, 6.10.12
- Corinne Lepage, GMOs: EFSA breaches basic ethical code, Le Nouvel Observateur, 7.10.12
- 10th anniversary of the EFSA: Agency must finally meet expectations, The Greens and European free alliance in the European Parliament, 13.11.12