FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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.

 

More articles by:

A version of this article  was first published by EUobserver.

August 16, 2018
Bruce E. Levine
“Don’t Be Stupid, Be a Smarty”: Why Anti-Authoritarian Doctors Are So Rare
W. T. Whitney
New Facebook Alliance Endangers Access to News about Latin America
Ramzy Baroud
Mission Accomplished: Why Solidarity Boats to Gaza Succeed Despite Failing to Break the Siege
Larry Atkins
Why Parkland Students, Not Trump, Deserve the Nobel Peace Prize
William Hartung
Donald Trump, Gunrunner for Hire
Yves Engler
Will Trudeau Stand Up to Mohammad bin Salman?
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Morality Tales in US Public Life?
Vijay Prashad
Samir Amin: Death of a Marxist
Binoy Kampmark
Boris Johnson and the Exploding Burka
Eric Toussaint
Nicaragua: The Evolution of the Government of President Daniel Ortega Since 2007 
Adolf Alzuphar
Days of Sagebrush, Nights of Jasmine in LA
Robert J. Burrowes
A Last Ditch Strategy to Fight for Human Survival
August 15, 2018
Jason Hirthler
Russiagate and the Men with Glass Eyes
Paul Street
Omarosa’s Book Tour vs. Forty More Murdered Yemeni Children
Charles Pierson
Is Bankruptcy in Your Future?
George Ochenski
The Absolute Futility of ‘Global Dominance’ in the 21st Century
Gary Olson
Are We Governed by Secondary Psychopaths
Fred Guerin
On News, Fake News and Donald Trump
Arshad Khan
A Rip Van Winkle President Sleeps as Proof of Man’s Hand in Climate Change Multiplies and Disasters Strike
P. Sainath
The Unsung Heroism of Hausabai
Georgina Downs
Landmark Glyphosate Cancer Ruling Sets a Precedent for All Those Affected by Crop Poisons
Rev. William Alberts
United We Kneel, Divided We Stand
Chris Gilbert
How to Reactivate Chavismo
Kim C. Domenico
A Coffeehouse Hallucination: The Anti-American Dream Dream
August 14, 2018
Daniel Falcone
On Taking on the Mobilized Capitalist Class in Elections: an Interview With Noam Chomsky
Karl Grossman
Turning Space Into a War Zone
Jonah Raskin
“Fuck Wine Grapes, Fuck Wines”: the Coming Napafication of the World
Manuel García, Jr.
Climate Change Bites Big Business
Alberto Zuppi - Cesar Chelala
Argentina at a Crossroads
Chris Wright
On “Bullshit Jobs”
Rosita A. Sweetman
Dear Jorge: On the Pope’s Visit to Ireland
Binoy Kampmark
Authoritarian Revocations: Australia, Terrorism and Citizenship
Sara Johnson
The Incredible Benefits of Sagebrush and Juniper in the West
Martin Billheimer
White & Red Aunts, Capital Gains and Anarchy
Walter Clemens
Enough Already! Donald J. Trump Resignation Speech
August 13, 2018
Michael Colby
Migrant Injustice: Ben & Jerry’s Farmworker Exploitation
John Davis
California: Waging War on Wildfire
Alex Strauss
Chasing Shadows: Socialism Won’t Go Away Because It is Capitalism’s Antithesis 
Kathy Kelly
U.S. is Complicit in Child Slaughter in Yemen
Fran Shor
The Distemper of White Spite
Chad Hanson
We Know How to Protect Homes From Wildfires. Logging Isn’t the Way to Do It
Faisal Khan
Nawaz Sharif: Has Pakistan’s Houdini Finally Met his End?
Binoy Kampmark
Trump Versus Journalism: the Travails of Fourth Estate
Wim Laven
Honestly Looking at Family Values
Fred Gardner
Exploiting Styron’s Ghost
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail