food safety in hands of lobbies
The European Food Safety Authority
(EFSA) was set up to protect consumers. That’s their job. And yet staff
at the agency, who ought to be deciding independently on what new
products are permitted to come to market, are working closely with the food industry
As documents from the authority
reveal, the Chairman of the Panel on Nutrition, Albert Flynn, also
works for the U.S. company Kraft. Up until March 2011, EFSA management
board member Jiri Ruprich worked for Danone in the Czech Republic,
while since 2000 panel member Carlo Agostoni has received conference
speaking fees from companies such as Nestle, Danone, Heinz, Hipp,
Humana and Mead Johnson.
This is alarming, because what may
or may not end up on the plates of European consumers is determined by
Europe’s highest food supervisory authority. Headquartered in Parma,
Italy, with 450 employees and an annual budget of at least 73 million
euros, EFSA is the top cop for food risk assessment in Europe.
Critics are now accusing it of
failing to take on conflicts of interest, despite several scandals.
“It’s just not acceptable that
representatives of an industry whose products are to be assessed are
sitting in just that agency that’s supposed to assess them”,
complains Timo Lange of LobbyControl.
A perfect marketing tool
The biggest obstacle to reform are existing EU
regulations. Under them, EFSA’s members are not prohibited from acting on behalf of
the food industry, so long as they admit their conflict in a
so-called declaration of interests.
That this is far from acting
independently is revealed by the example of Albert Flynn, from Ireland,
who heads the EFSA Panel on Dietetic Products, Nutrition and Allergies.
Under his chairmanship, a particularly delicate decision related to the
approval of a product from Kraft Foods Europe, “Biscuits for
Breakfast”, was published on 21 July 2011. That the nutritionist is at
the same time a member of a Kraft Foods advisory board evidently failed
to ruffle the board.
Flynn’s panel decided in favour of
Kraft’s application for its cereal product with a higher proportion of
slowly digestible starch (SDS). According to the manufacturer, SDS
should slow the rise of sugar levels in the blood after eating, which
is good news for diabetics.
For food manufacturers, it’s about
money and market share. Claims that foods will confer better health are
a perfect marketing tool. If a manufacturer can persuade a consumer of
a particular health benefit from a food product, it boosts its own
market share too.
The background for EFSA’s
assessments is the Nutrition and Health Claim Regulation (NHCR), in
force since 2007. Foods with health claims may be sold only if those
claims have been scientifically proven. Investigating these claims is
the responsibility of the EFSA.
Strong links, however, exist not
only between EFSA and manufacturers, but with industry-related
organisations. Flynn, for example, is also a member of scientific
working groups of the lobby group International Life Sciences Institute
Members include corporations such
as Monsanto, Coca-Cola, Nestle, Unilever, Danone, Bayer, and Kraft.
Other EFSA experts have also taken up positions at the institute, which
has been placed by the World Health Organisation on its blacklist of
On its website EFSA writes that its
activities are defined by fundamental values such as ‘independence,
openness, transparency and responsiveness’. Critics are continuing to
demand that they finally practice what they preach.