Europe and the biotech industry
The European Food Standards Agency (EFSA) is facing criticism over its links to the food industry following the resignation of one of it's top officials to take up at role at major lobbying group the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). Professor Diana Banati has been chair of the EFSA management board since 2010, a role which gave her considerable influence over the direction of research of its scientific department, including how rigorously issues such as GM safety were pursued.
The ILSI is funded by food industry giants including biotech giants Monsanto, Bayer and Dow Chemical, and presses for less stringent testing processes and the promotion of GM products. It was recently announced that Professor Banati is to return to a senior position at ILSI, having previously been a member of its executive board until 2010. On that occasion her dual role was only uncovered by green activists, having gone undetected by the EFSA vetting procedure. Despite the apparent deception the Agency declared that her resignation from ILSI was sufficient action, describing attacks upon her impartiality as “crude and unnecessary”.
The EFSA took a decidedly less sympathetic view of her latest move, demanding her immediate resignation and issuing a strongly worded press release stressing the need for board members to avoid any perceived conflict of interest. This more robust action could have been spurred on by the apparent concern of the European Parliament, which registered its dissatisfaction at the situation by refusing to approve the Agencies budget for 2010.
Suspicions have long existed about the undue influence of ILSI over the EFSA agenda, with other board members having previously held positions at both organisations, and much of the EFSA's data being drawn directly from studies produced by ILSI. In addition, the absence of any “cooling off” period between working for the two organizations has been criticised, effectively allowing Professor Banati to switch overnight from a supposedly objective guardian of consumer safety to a well connected and well informed lobbyist. In light of the growing furore and questions over the independence of the EFSA decision making process, many green activists are demanding that all recent decisions made by the Agency with regard to GM and biotechnology be reviewed or annulled.
Concerns over the undue influence of GM supporters in the corridors of power are not unique to the EFSA. In the UK, the minister in charge of many of the decisions over GM food and related issues is currently Caroline Spelman, who prior to politics was a director at a biotechnology firm and a known supporter of GM.
Read more about the ISLI in Ethical Consumer's feature on Codex Alimentarius.