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Article appeared in Parliament Magazine April 2007 

EFSA: only paying lip service to consumer safety?

Right into the preparations for the 5-year founding of EFSA, another consumer scandal hit the EU: for the first time, French scientists gave proof that the genetically-modified maize MON863 is in fact dangerous. In feeding studies, rats developed toxic poisonings as well as significant damage in liver and kidneys. But the maize has EU authorisation since January 2006, even though the Commission then already had to notice that EFSA could not answer fundamental safety questions.

This latest scandal is the prime example of everything that goes wrong with EFSA's highly problematic risk assessment - especially when it comes to the question of GMOs. EFSA is set up to protect consumer safety and to improve the risk assessment of possibly dangerous food, but it seriously fails its mission. So far, all EFSA risk assessments on GMOs have been in favour of the biotech industry, ruling out any danger of the GMO product in question. The Commission has used EFSA's uncritical statements as a carte blanche for trying to further open up the European market for genetically modified-products, while the majority of European consumers are opposed to GMOs. There has been a de-politicization of the Commission's responsibility as risk manager, because it simply relies on EFSA's flawed assessments, overlooking member states and independent scientists' expertise.

In April 2004, EFSA issued its first positive opinion on MON863, despite strong objections by most EU member states, which already then highlighted disturbing findings in studies. EFSA's second evaluation again dismissed that results of other studies where "biologically significant". It is outrageous how the EFSA has turned a blind eye on the scientific findings of European member states and their scientists, trampling under food the very idea of the precautionary principle.

The overly positive results on GMOs are not surprising when one digs deeper into EFSA's structures to discover that members of its GMO panel have direct or indirect links to the biotechnology industry, even appearing in promotional videos for GMOs. Other panelists have already assessed the GMO in question for a member state, thus controlling their own work. There are also concerns about lack of quality of data used for the assessment as well as missing results for long-term exposure. These problems arise not only for GMOs, but also in the assessment of the safety of the artificial sweetener aspartame, where EFSA again did not see any health danger. And this despite numerous independent studies on aspartame as well as reports by people concerned confirming toxic effects. But 4 people in EFSA in direct or indirect contact with the sweetener industry are apparently enough to overrule these independent findings. With various written questions to the Commission in the past years I have repeatedly highlighted the serious problems in EFSA's risk assessment.

It was high time that the European Commission finally acknowledged failings in EFSA's work, and last year announced transparency improvements. It still remains to be seen if this good intention will lead to fundamental changes or will be mere lip service. We don't know when these transparency changes will be implemented, and the pro-GMO experts are still part of the assessment panel. EFSA's latest opinion on the safety of a GMO potato and its current assessment of MON863 raises serious doubts if it can live up to the challenge. After much criticism, the Commission recently suspended the authorisation procedure for a genetically-modified potato. This potato has been altered to include a resistance to the antibiotics kanamycin and neomycin, both of which are still used in treatment. Releasing this potato into the environment could lead to uncontrollable resistances. While the World Health Organisation and the European Medicines Agency have confirmed that this could undermine the effectiveness of antibiotics medication, the EFSA once again throws caution in the wind, advising that the potato can be used for cultivation.

On my initiative, the EP's Environment Committee will question the Commission on the MON863 scandal on 8 May. Of course EFSA's highly questionable role will be highlighted during the discussion. The impression is increasing that EFSA serves as an alibi for the failed risk management of the Commission. Hopefully the ENVI session will be the starting point for the Commission to show that actions speak louder than words. After all, who is responsible for EFSA? European consumers are waiting for clear changes to show that EFSA strives for the best protection of their health and the environment. It is high noon for EFSA's reform.