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European Food Safety Official Resigns Amidst Conflict of Interest Controversy

Conflict over conflict. The resignation of a senior member of Europe’s Food Safety Authority, shown here during a technical meeting, has highlighted conflict of interest concerns.


Diána Bánáti, a food policy expert from Hungary, has resigned from her position as chair of the management board of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the European Union's top risk-assessment body. EFSA officials asked her to give up her position after she announced yesterday that she would become executive and scientific director of the Brussels-based International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI) starting on 1 July. Bánáti has also resigned as food safety commissioner and chief scientific advisor at the Hungarian Ministry of Rural Development, according to an ILSI spokesperson.

Bánáti's relationship with ILSI, a think tank based in Washington, D.C., that is heavily funded by industry, has long been the subject of controversy. In October 2010, some members of the European Parliament and nongovernmental advocates called for Bánáti's resignation from the EFSA management board, which she had served on since October 2008, after it became known that she joined ILSI's European board of directors in April 2010 but did not publicly report the potential conflict of interest before her reelection to the EFSA board later that year. She ultimately resigned from the ILSI board but continued her work as EFSA chair.

Bánáti was not available for an interview, but an ILSI spokesperson told ScienceInsider that she knew that she would not be able to continue her EFSA work after accepting the position at ILSI because of EFSA's conflict-of-interest policies. Bánáti's picture and biography were removed from the EFSA Web site today.

Bánáti is not the only EFSA board member facing conflict complaints. In March 2011, Corporate Europe Observatory, a group that campaigns for transparency in E.U. institutions, sent a letter to EFSA Director Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle and E.U. Health and Consumer Policy Commissioner John Dalli, which charged that four other EFSA members also hold outside positions that present potential conflicts.

The European Parliament, meanwhile, has also expressed concerns about EFSA's independence. In March, its budgetary control committee postponed a decision to close out EFSA's books for 2010, citing concerns about meeting expenses and conflicts of interest, and calling on the body to improve its management. The parliament is expected to make a final decision on the issue tomorrow.

EFSA's quick request that Bánáti resign appears to signal its eagerness to highlight its recent efforts to address conflicts. In March, it presented a new conflict-of-interest policy that will take effect in July. The policy aims to introduce greater transparency by using stricter conflict-of-interest definitions. It also requires scientific experts previously employed by industry to wait 2 years before being allowed to be a member of an EFSA scientific group.

EFSA critics, however, say they are waiting to see how the rules play out. Earlier this year, they note, the EFSA placed Mella Frewen, a senior lobbyist for the trade group FoodDrinkEurope and a former Monsanto employee, on a short list of candidates for the board. And Bánáti's case suggests that EFSA members are able to move too easily between government and industry, says Olivier Hoedeman of the Corporate Europe Observatory. "Today, she quit her job, tomorrow she will be a lobbyist."

Hoedeman also says that European policies that encourage public-private partnerships mean that few food scientists are free of industry ties. But "Europe is large," he says. "I cannot imagine that it is impossible to find twenty experts without ties to the industry."