FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

A Farcical Approach to Food Safety

by DAVID CRONIN

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.

 

A version of this article  was first published by EUobserver.

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
January 20, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Divide and Rule: Class, Hate, and the 2016 Election
Andrew Levine
When Was America Great?
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: This Ain’t a Dream No More, It’s the Real Thing
Yoav Litvin
Making Israel Greater Again: Justice for Palestinians in the Age of Trump
Linda Pentz Gunter
Nuclear Fiddling While the Planet Burns
Ruth Fowler
Standing With Standing Rock: Of Pipelines and Protests
David Green
Why Trump Won: the 50 Percenters Have Spoken
Dave Lindorff
Imagining a Sanders Presidency Beginning on Jan. 20
Pete Dolack
Eight People Own as Much as Half the World
Roger Harris
Too Many People in the World: Names Named
Steve Horn
Under Tillerson, Exxon Maintained Ties with Saudi Arabia, Despite Dismal Human Rights Record
John Berger
The Nature of Mass Demonstrations
Stephen Zielinski
It’s the End of the World as We Know It
David Swanson
Six Things We Should Do Better As Everything Gets Worse
Alci Rengifo
Trump Rex: Ancient Rome’s Shadow Over the Oval Office
Brian Cloughley
What Money Can Buy: the Quiet British-Israeli Scandal
Mel Gurtov
Donald Trump’s Lies And Team Trump’s Headaches
Kent Paterson
Mexico’s Great Winter of Discontent
Norman Solomon
Trump, the Democrats and the Logan Act
David Macaray
Attention, Feminists
Yves Engler
Demanding More From Our Media
James A Haught
Religious Madness in Ulster
Dean Baker
The Economics of the Affordable Care Act
Patrick Bond
Tripping Up Trumpism Through Global Boycott Divestment Sanctions
Robert Fisk
How a Trump Presidency Could Have Been Avoided
Robert Fantina
Trump: What Changes and What Remains the Same
David Rosen
Globalization vs. Empire: Can Trump Contain the Growing Split?
Elliot Sperber
Dystopia
Dan Bacher
New CA Carbon Trading Legislation Answers Big Oil’s Call to Continue Business As Usual
Wayne Clark
A Reset Button for Political America
Chris Welzenbach
“The Death Ship:” An Allegory for Today’s World
Uri Avnery
Being There
Peter Lee
The Deep State and the Sex Tape: Martin Luther King, J. Edgar Hoover, and Thurgood Marshall
Patrick Hiller
Guns Against Grizzlies at Schools or Peace Education as Resistance?
Randy Shields
The Devil’s Real Estate Dictionary
Ron Jacobs
Singing the Body Electric Across Time
Ann Garrison
Fifty-five Years After Lumumba’s Assassination, Congolese See No Relief
Christopher Brauchli
Swing Low Alabama
Dr. Juan Gómez-Quiñones
La Realidad: the Realities of Anti-Mexicanism
Jon Hochschartner
The Five Least Animal-Friendly Senate Democrats
Pauline Murphy
Fighting Fascism: the Irish at the Battle of Cordoba
Susan Block
#GoBonobos in 2017: Happy Year of the Cock!
Louis Proyect
Is Our Future That of “Sense8” or “Mr. Robot”?
Charles R. Larson
Review: Robert Coover’s “Huck out West”
David Yearsley
Manchester-by-the-Sea and the Present Catastrophe
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail