A Farcical Approach to Food Safety
Cupid, the god of erotic love, inspired several frescoes adorning the ducal palace in Parma, Italy.
I’m not sure whether the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), the building’s current occupant, has set out to harness Cupid’s energy. Yet it has become synonymous with murky liaisons between scientists and big business.
This year EFSA could take steps to improve the situation. It is scheduled to review a 2011 policy paper on its “independence”.
If the authority wants to engage in something other than a whitewash, then the first thing it should do is to acknowledge that the existing policy is farcical.
The signature at the end of the document is sufficient to strip it of any credibility. It bears the name of Diána Bánáti, who resigned from the authority in 2012 after other European Union bodies started raising questions about her activities. She was serving both as chairwoman of EFSA’s management board and as a director of the International Life Sciences Institute, a lobbying group for the food industry.
Taking such a relaxed attitude to conflict of interest issues, the paper reads as if it was written during a siesta. It says that “interests are a natural and inevitable consequence of attaining scientific recognition at international level in a given field”.
This indicates that EFSA thinks it is generally acceptable for scientists to work simultaneously for the private sector and for public agencies.
Having examined EFSA’s activities carefully over the past few years, I’m worried that its staff spend too much time in a majestic palace to understand how things work in the real world. Or maybe they do understand but refuse to recognise the nature of the problem, lest they upset their corporate chums.
I’ve seen quite a few letters that the authority receives from agri-food giants. These show that major corporations will try to exert pressure on regulators when they encounter any difficulties. In March 2011, for example, Syngenta complained about the length of time that EFSA was taking to complete “risk assessments” of genetically-modified maize. Such delays, the Swiss firm warned, “may have a serious impact” on the international food trade.
It shouldn’t really be necessary to spell out what is going on here. The reason why corporations want to get their products on the market swiftly is that all they care about is increasing their profits.
Scientists, however, are supposed to be motivated by loftier concerns such as the pursuit of knowledge and truth. It follows that science can only be truly independent if it is not reliant on big business for funding.
Syngenta’s links with EFSA have proven controversial. In 2008, the firm hired Suzy Renckens to work for it on biotechnology regulation; she had previously coordinated EFSA’s panel for genetically modified foods.
A row during 2013 suggested that the relationship might have soured since that revolving door case. Syngenta threatened to sue the agency after taking umbrage at a press statement about the effects of certain pesticides on bees.
Despite that squabble, EFSA continues to be highly accommodating to Syngenta.
I was disturbed recently to come across a dossier which raises concerns about how chemicals get rubber-stamped on both sides of the Atlantic.
In 2012, EFSA issued a report on sedaxane, a pesticide manufactured by Syngenta for use on cereals. Later that year, the European Commission (in theory, a separate institution to EFSA) noticed that sedaxane had been categorised as “likely to be carcinogenic to humans” in the US. As EFSA hadn’t recommended that the product be classified as a carcinogen, the Commission asked the authority to “update its conclusions”.
EFSA’s revised report was published in January last year. It reached exactly the same findings as the earlier one. While it expressed some concern about the long-term effects of the product on birds and mammals who feed on grain and seeds, it didn’t explicitly state that it could cause cancer to humans.
These reports were based on studies supplied to EFSA and to the French government. Guess who supplied those studies: Syngenta, the very company that has a vested interest in selling sedaxane, irrespective of what damage it may do to health or the environment.
For a short while, I thought this might be a rare instance of America taking a more robust stance on food safety than Europe. Then I learned that the US had granted federal clearance to sedaxane in 2012.
Along with many other campaigners, I have become quite obsessed with the efforts to clinch a trade and investment pact between the EU and the US. One of the major objectives of the corporations that have shaped the agenda for the trade talks is to achieve “regulatory convergence“: a fancy term for removing any differences between the EU and the US. Their chief target is the EU’s “precautionary principle“, which allows it to place restrictions on substances if there are sound reasons to believe they are dangerous.
The sedaxane saga illustrates that the standards applying on both sides of the Atlantic are already too low. Any attempt to lower them further must, therefore, be resisted.
David Cronin is the author of the new book Corporate Europe: How Big Business Sets Policies on Food, Climate and War is published by Pluto Press.
A version of this article was first published by EUobserver.