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Unsticking Food Lobbyists in Europe

Posted by Pratap Chatterjee on March 6th, 2012
CorpWatch Blog
EFSA Cartoon. Source: Corporate Europe Observatory

How do you get rid of sticky chewing gum from city streets and lobbyists who want to promote dangerous foods in Europe? The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), based in Parma, Italy, has approved two new proposals this week that proponents claim will get rid of these two menaces to society.

EFSA investigates food and feed safety, nutrition, animal welfare, plant protection and health. The agency’s assessments are used by the European Commission to decide whether to authorize products on the European market – from new types of chewing gum to pesticides and genetically engineered crops. A favorable assessment could generate millions or even billions of Euros in profit for manufacturers.

On Monday EFSA introduced new rules that will ban industry experts from serving on EFSA scientific panels related to their work. The new rules will affect the agency’s scientific committee and eight expert panels, whose terms expire in July.

The new rules were prompted by a series of reports from Corporate Europe Observatory and the Earth Open Source, which documented cases where EFSA used industry scientists and employees to conduct risk assessment, despite conflicts of interest. (full disclosure: I am a board member of the Corporate Europe Observatory)

For example, a health claim by Kraft Foods was approved by the nutrition panel of EFSA under the chairmanship of by Albert Flynn, who is also happens to be a member of an advisory board at Kraft Foods, according to an October 2011 investigation conducted by Suddeutsche Zeitung, a German newspaper. A December 2011 report by Pesticide Action Network showed that 10 out of 13 experts on an EFSA working group on toxicology had conflicts of interest.

The food industry is not unique in attempting to influence European rule making. Indeed, some 90 percent of the 15,000 lobbyists who work in Brussels are employed by industry, with civil society groups such as environmentalists and trade unions making up less than ten percent. These corporate lobbyists are estimated to spend 750 million euros a year to influence these European bureaucrats.

One of the key ways these lobbyists influence legislation is via the 1,000 plus “Expert Groups” or advisory bodies to the European Commission who often determine the framework of most legislation. Until recently the membership of these groups was secret. Today even though some information has been made available in the last two years, the minutes, agendas, contributions of their meetings remain unavailable to the public.

Quite a few of these Expert Groups have been exposed to be dominated by industry. For example some 191 banking lobbyists on eight expert groups dealing with financial regulation claim to be working in a ‘personal capacity.’

Activists are waiting to see if the new EFSA rules will be strong enough. Nina Holland of Corporate Europe Observatory, notes that not all conflicts of interest are banned with the new system which she believes is still a cause of concern. “This month the membership of eight expert panels will be renewed, and this process will be closely watched by many critics.”

And the chewing gum? It’s a product that claims to be removable and degradable, according to Professor Terence Cosgrove at the University of Bristol who invented it. Rev7 Gum, which was just approved by EFSA, claims to be easy to remove from clothing as well as city streets.

CorpWatch is taking bets on which one Europe will be able to eliminate first – the chewing gum or the food lobbyists.

(For more on this subject – see An Insider in Brussels: Lobbyists Reshape the European Union by Elke Cronenberg  and Sunshine Laws to Track European Lobbyists by yours truly)