Report: EFSA Is Sufficiently Independent but Needs Better Communication

The 10-year old European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has done a good job providing scientific advice to Europe's policymakers, and despite allegations to the contrary, it operates independently, says an evaluation report by international auditing company Ernst & Young issued on Wednesday. But the agency must become more transparent and do a better job of explaining what it does and how, the auditors say.

EFSA, based in Parma, Italy, was created in 2002 by the European Union to provide independent advice and communication on risks concerning the food chain. Under European regulations, it must undergo an external review every 6 years.

The 337-page report, which assesses virtually all of EFSA's activities in the period from 2006 to 2010, comes at a sensitive time. EFSA has recently come under fire from advocacy groups and the European Parliament for being too close to industry. On 9 May, the chair of EFSA's management board, Diána Bánáti, resigned effective immediately because she had returned to her job at the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), an industry-funded group. Two days later, the European Parliament refused to sign off on EFSA's 2010 expenditures as a way to protest ties between EFSA and industry.

But Ernst & Young's auditors see no major problem. The report says EFSA has gone further to protect the independence of its scientific opinions than required by its founding regulation. The auditors recommend against strengthening EFSA's conflict of interest policy, because doing so would introduce additional burdens on scientists participating in EFSA's expert panels and might make them hesitant to join. "In Europe, where science is often funded by industry, it is difficult to find people who are totally independent, if you want the best experts," says an EFSA spokesperson.

Nevertheless, the auditors have provided the agency with a long list of things to improve—with "communication" as the central word. EFSA's risk communication is useful and clear for decision makers but lacks clarity for a broader audience, the report says. And to help dispel the notion that it is in bed with industry, EFSA should communicate more often and more effectively about how it collects data and makes decisions.

Nina Holland, a campaigner at Corporate Europe Observatory, one of EFSA's strongest critics, disagrees with the conclusions. Just last month, Holland sent a letter to the EFSA board in which she noted that one of its panel members, Roland Franz, had failed to include an activity with ILSI in his declaration of interests. Franz did so after the letter, Holland says, but was not sanctioned. "EFSA's conflict of interest policy has improved, but not enough," Holland says. "And they just do not check if the declarations of interest are up to date."

While Holland filled out a questionnaire for the auditors herself, few other critics seem to have been heard, she says. Still, "even the auditors see there's a lot to improve, as the critical reader certainly notices," Holland says.

Monica Macovei, a Romanian member of the European Parliament and the driving force behind last spring's vote to withhold budgetary approval, says EFSA must agree to a list of changes, including sanctions for conflicts of interest; she also wants a "cooling-down period" of 3 to 5 years for experts switching from industry to EFSA or back. If not, she says the European Parliament should not approve EFSA's 2010 books in a vote scheduled for November. "It is important for EFSA to increase trust among citizens," she says. "If the best expert has worked for the industry, no problem. But be transparent about it. That is the least they can do."

EFSA's Management Board will review the report and discuss what to do with its recommendations at its next meeting in October, according to a written statement issued on Wednesday by Sue Davies, vice chair of the board. "We will not be able to [implement] all recommendations immediately, so we will have to prioritize," the EFSA spokesperson adds. The auditors' recommendations will also be discussed at a conference, Challenging Boundaries in Risk Assessment—Sharing Experiences, in Parma on 7 and 8 November.