The European Food Safety Authority has commenced its search for a new executive director. However, as the processes of the food safety watchdog come under increasing public scrutiny and new challenges arise from the integrated nature of the global supply chain, heading up the regulator will be no easy task. Ben Cooper investigates.

After seven years in post, Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle is stepping down as executive director of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) and the search has begun for her successor.

Typically for a European institution, this will not be a hurried process. Bernhard Url will deputise until the Management Board appoints an interim executive director at the end of October. The search for a permanant replacement falls under the aegis of the European Commission.

The deliberation being observed possibly speaks to the challenge the post has entailed. Indeed, as she officially relinquishes her position this weekend Geslain-Lanéelle may feel she is returning to the comparative safe haven of frontline national politics, as she becomes director general for agricultural, agri-food and territorial policies in the French Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Forestry.

Established in 2002, EFSA’s creation was critical to the EU policy of separating risk assessment in the European food system from risk management, following high-profile food scares and contaminations, notably mad cow disease.

The principle of making a clear divide between risk assessment and policies responding to those risks appears desirable. However, the controversy which EFSA itself has attracted during the past decade and particularly recently suggests any aspiration that this model would depoliticise the risk assessment process was somewhat optimistic. Rather, EFSA has often found itself at the centre of controversial food debates in Europe.

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When asked by just-food for its view on the outlook for EFSA under new leadership, Food Drink Europe describes the agency as “one of the most respected bodies of its kind around the world” and adds that it is “confident that EFSA will continue to meet the challenges it faces in the years ahead”.

Such a glowing testimonial from the food industry could be something of a mixed blessing for EFSA given that it is the organisation’s close ties with industry that have created the most controversy.

The concern over conflicts of interest among EFSA employees and expert advisors came to a head last year when its chair, Diána Bánáti, was forced to step down after she took up a role with the pro-GM lobbying group International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI). A month later, the European Parliament voted not to approve EFSA’s budget discharge with recommendations that EFSA address its conflict of interest policies.

In response EFSA has tightened up its procedures guarding against conflicts of interest. It has introduced a code of conduct and begun to disclose the other professional interests of expert panellists. It has also launched an action plan to address conflict of interest issues. The budget discharge was subsequently approved by the European Parliament in November.

Monica Macovei MEP believes that, while EFSA has gone some way to addressing concerns, more action is required. “The agency made some progress but not enough and there is still a way to go,” she told just-food.

Macovei has called for the imposition of financial sanctions on EFSA employees who disregard a ‘cooling off’ between working for the agency and for industry. While she concedes that it is necessary for EFSA to engage experts who have also worked for industry, she says there must be “clear rules” to manage this. “Transparency is vital. We need to know who is the person testing this product and where they have come from.”

Macovei has also urged the organisation to recruit more in-house experts and become less reliant on external advisors who almost inevitably will have links with industry.

This may be a desirable option for the new director to ponder but, as Professor Ragnar Löfstedt, director of the King’s College Centre for Risk Management in London, points out, it would have resource implications. “I doubt EFSA can fund a broader in-house scientific network,” Löfstedt tells just-food.

Indeed, the controversy over the impartiality of EFSA experts stems in no small part from the cuts in education and research budgets and the growing prevalence of public-private partnership in scientific research.

Professor Löfstedt, who sat on EFSA’s Advisory Board from its inception to this year, continues: “Governments could up their research and development budgets for university departments rather than cutting back on this leading a number of academics to work more with industry. But will that happen? I doubt it.”

Helen Wallace, director of campaign group GeneWatch UK, believes EFSA has “moved a little bit” and been “forced to take account of these complaints”, but adds: “I don’t think all the [conflict of interest] issues have yet to be resolved and that will be a challenge for the incoming person.”

Wallace voices concern not only with the conflict of interest represented by experts working directly for food companies but also with academics whose departments or universities accept corporate funding.

Löfstedt, on the other hand, sees EFSA as an organisation “fit for purpose” which has adequately addressed the conflict of interest issue. “EFSA has satisfactorily addressed the concerns of conflict of interest,” he says. “Indeed I get the impression that they have at times bent over backwards to meet and work with certain special interest groups. That said the Agency needs to continue pushing its scientific advisors to continue being transparent with regard to who they work for.”

There are clearly diverging views and in that sense the new executive director will face the same problems as their predecessor. The difference may only be a matter of degree. However, even with better measures in place, the problem of conflict of interest will be ever-present as public research budgets become more stretched and EFSA’s workload increases.

Wallace believes the problems are being exacerbated by the effective extension of EFSA’s remit, notably the increasing work it is undertaking in agriculture. Others would suggest that the extension of EFSA’s purview into such areas with a direct bearing on food safety is necessary.

In a recent communique, EFSA said it “foresees over the period 2014-16 a growing demand for risk assessments and scientific advice in such areas as animal health and welfare, pesticides, GMOs, novel foods and enzymes as well as for scientific work to cover issues, including environmental risk assessment, post-market monitoring, risk benefit and efficacy evaluation. Faced with challenges posed by growing international trade in food and other global food safety issues, EFSA must also ensure that it remains ready to respond quickly to any food safety-related crises.”

In a sense this outlook mirrors the evolution seen since 2002. Introduced as the European food system faced some hefty challenges, the supply of food has only become more complex, globalised, controversial, politicised and issue-laden during EFSA’s first decade.

As Professor Löfstedt concludes: “EFSA works in areas that publics are concerned about and which are also highly politicised.” The debates have “hardened” and further food scandals have eroded public confidence in regulatory agencies. As a result, he predicts, EFSA “will continue to be in the news”.

So overall, as food and dietary science develops and more technical – and in some cases controversial – solutions are sought, EFSA’s workload seems certain to increase and its role will only become more critical and possibly controversial. As long as that is the case, how it approaches outstanding or new issues over conflict of interest will be a primary concern of the person stepping into Geslain-Lanéelle’s shoes.