Ever since the European Food Safety Authority was founded 15 years ago, it has claimed to operate independently of its European Union funding sources, including the legislative and executive institutions of the Commission, Council, Parliament and EU Member States.
The Authority is an agency of the EU, but one that is housed in Parma, Italy, not Brussels, Belgium, where the EU governmental operations are headquartered.
Now, however, the European Food Safety Authority’s (EFSA) Management Board Chair Jaana Husu-Kallio says the agency has adopted a new, robust and well-balanced independence policy that includes several new measures to further strengthen the Authority’s impartiality and protection against improper influence.
“The policy we agreed today (June 21) is the result of months of debate and consultation,” said Husu-Kallio. “We thank our stakeholders and the public for their important suggestions, which were considered with great care. The system already in place was robust and effective and we have further strengthened it.
“Independence is not black and white – we have to strike a balance between attracting experts and securing ourselves against undue influence. Some people might think we have gone too far or could have gone further, but I am confident that we have got the balance right.”
Husu-Kallio said the next challenge is to implement the policy.
“We will do this by the end of 2017 so that the new rules can be used in the renewal process for our scientific panels, which begin new terms in 2018,” Husu-Kallio said.
EFSA’s existing range of safeguards rests on a comprehensive system for avoiding conflicts of interest among its external scientific experts. These measures include:
- A multi-layered scrutiny system of annual declarations of interest (ADoIs), specific declarations of interest (SDoIs) and oral declarations of interest (ODoIs). ADoIs are submitted by all members of EFSA’s Scientific Committee, Scientific Panels and Working Groups.
- All DoIs are screened to identify potential conflicts related to an expert’s professional activities and financial interests. A range of options is available to resolve conflicts – e.g. the expert may be considered ineligible for membership or chairmanship of a panel, or can be asked to relinquish a position, or shares in a company.
- Compliance checks are performed on a sample of DoIs twice a year by staff members not involved in the assessment and validation process. Regular external audits are carried out by the European Court of Auditors, the Internal Audit Service of the European Commission, and external contractors.
The revised policy now includes:
- A new definition of what constitutes a conflict of interest, which brings EFSA into line with the most recent rules adopted by the European Commission for its expert committees.
- A comprehensive set of “cooling-off” rules: external experts will be automatically barred from joining EFSA’s scientific panels if in the preceding two years they have been employed by, acted as consultants to, or have offered scientific advice to organisations that work in areas covered by EFSA’s remit. The cooling-off rules also apply to experts who have received research funding from such organisations over the same period.
- A requirement that experts declare the proportion of their annual earnings received from any organization, body or company whose activities fall within EFSA’s areas of work. This information will be published and used as part of the DoI assessment.
- Publication of the list of EFSA’s partner organisations, such as national and international authorities, universities or research institutes.
- Member State experts who take part in peer review meetings to be subject to the same scrutiny and transparency measures as panel experts.
“I am pleased that our governing body has equipped us with such a strong set of measures,” said Bernhard Url, EFSA’s executive director. “EFSA’s scientific advice has little value unless it is trusted, and the public will grant us that trust only if they can see that we are independent.”
EFSA was set up in 2002 following a series of food crises in the late 1990s to be a source of scientific advice and communication on risks associated with the food chain. The agency was legally established by the EU under the General Food Law – Regulation 178/2002.
The General Food Law created a European food safety system in which responsibility for science-based risk assessment and risk management policy are kept separate. EFSA is responsible for the former area, and also has a duty to communicate its scientific findings to the public.