We are what we eat. So it should come as no surprise that food-related issues such as bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), bisphenol A contamination, foot-and-mouth disease, Escherichia coli outbreaks and genetic modification resonate with the public. It is unfortunate, then, that discussion of them is often clouded by controversies over the impartiality of scientific advice and whether government regulations are truly unaffected by industry interests.
Questions of food safety, nutrition and agriculture elicit more emotion and public mistrust than almost any other science-based issue. The firestorm over obesity, for example, ignited once again in the United States last week, when the Institute of Medicine issued a report of nearly 500 pages that makes a compelling case that individual choice is not sufficient to prevent obesity in the current environment of inexpensive high-calorie foods and drinks. The report recommends that industry and government take action to get cheap healthy foods into supermarkets and schools, and that the government intervene to ensure that the right dietary messages get through the flood of advertising. The report, of course, was criticized by the industry forces that would have the most to lose if such changes were implemented.
In this highly charged environment, a controversy over alleged conflicts of interest at the top of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has led to media headlines, criticisms from the European Parliament and a feeding frenzy by some non-governmental organizations critical of EFSA (see page 294). Some of those rushing to judge EFSA might do well to remember, however, that whatever the body's shortcomings, it represents a marked improvement on what went before.
EFSA, which is based in Parma, Italy, was created in 2002 in the wake of the BSE scandal and other food crises. Public confidence in experts and governments had evaporated after it emerged that contaminated beef could cause new variant Creutzfeldt–Jakob disease in humans. At fault was a system in which economic imperatives too often blinkered experts and government ministries — not least departments of agriculture — in their assessment of risks and precautions. EFSA was created to change all that, as an independent agency that would provide scientific advice to the European Union and its member states, entirely separate from those responsible for making decisions. Not even the US Food and Drug Administration enjoys that degree of potential freedom from interference: it uses advisory panels of outside experts, but is ultimately part of a government department. This was made clear last year, when President Barack Obama's administration overruled the agency's decision to make the contraceptive Plan B One-Step (levonorgestrel) available to girls under 17 without a prescription (see Nature 480, 413; 2011).
The powerful agrofood industry will always seek to influence policy, whether within EFSA, or in the European Commission, the European Parliament and national ministries that actually make the decisions. As in other technological industries, many experts have industry links, and scientists' own perceptions of risk can be biased by a pro-technology outlook that might, for example, lead them to be too enthusiastic about certain transgenic crops.
“Overseers must take care not to unfairly tar the reputations of scientific experts.”
The safeguards against influence and bias should be the same everywhere: comprehensive and timely declaration of potential competing interests, transparency in decision-making, open airing of dissenting opinions and credible independent oversight. EFSA has taken many steps to implement such safeguards, and there seems to be little evidence that it is more affected than any other food-safety body by undue interest.
The media, non-governmental organizations and elected representatives and their institutions all have important oversight roles. But they also have a responsibility to keep concerns in perspective, and to avoid using them to further personal agendas. Overseers must take care not to unfairly tar the reputations of the many scientific experts who give their time generously and in complete independence to further public-health and science-based decision-making.
The public response to the 2009 swine-flu pandemic points to the risks of unsubstantiated suspicion of scientific advice. There were many wild claims that the medical response to the pandemic was being promoted by industry and industry-influenced experts to sell flu drugs and vaccines. This not only helped to fuel conspiracy theories that the pandemic was a hoax, but also diminished public confidence in health authorities at a time when it was sorely needed.
Advisory bodies must not tolerate shortcomings in procedures to disclose conflicts of interest, but they must defend themselves against any unfair tarnishing of scientific experts. Damage to reputation is extremely dangerous in a society in which the Internet can quickly convert exaggerated claims into supposed facts, and in a political climate in which 'elites' are often suspect. There is more to responsible oversight than just pointing out the problems — real or perceived.