The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is a roaring success that just needs to communicate better, according to an ‘independent report’.  Well, so says Ernst & Young (E&Y), a global leader in assurance, tax, transaction and advisory services.  The choice of E&Y as ‘independent’ auditor of EFSA’s overall operation, including issues as diverse as conflicts of interest, independence and quality of scientific work, is interesting to say the least.

A rush job?

Right from the off, it looks like the report may have been written in a hurry, as it’s riddled with spelling and grammatical mistakes and appears to regurgitate large chunks of EFSA’s own structures and operating procedures with little additional analysis.  A quick look at the stakeholders consulted by E&Y during the process reveals the ‘usual suspects’: Big Food interests like FoodDrinkEurope and the International Life Sciences Institute (ILSI), Big Biotech groups like EuropaBio and consumer organisations like BEUC, which receives 46% of its funding from the European Union (EU).  It’s ironic that E&Y should select the very stakeholders about whom we and others have long had concerns about possible conflicts of interests with EFSA.

Our collective eyebrow was quizzically raised when we saw that the report is being plugged by Sue Davies, chief policy adviser to UK consumer magazine Which? and Vice Chair of EFSA’s Management Board.  For someone who is portrayed as a consumer advocate, it is interesting that her positions on food policy have almost exactly matched those of FoodDrinkEurope and ILSI.  It is perhaps no surprise, then, that she has been the subject of conflict of interest allegations in the past.

On EFSA’s science: Bravo!

The report found that EFSA’s, “Provision of outputs...can be considered of good quality and useful for policy making”, and scientific outputs produced by EFSA following external requests are, “Effective...and provide added value”.  On EFSA’s scientific illiteracy and stubbornness on the matter of health claims, the report was entirely mute – even though health claims have been the single most controversial scientific issue in EFSA’s 10-year history.

When health claims are mentioned in the report, it is usually to question EFSA’s ability to reorganise itself in response to increased work requests resulting from changes in EU legislation, of which the Nutrition and Health Claims Regulation (NHCR) is a prime example.  EFSA did, in fact, find an innovative way of dealing with the mountain of requests: it shifted the goalposts so that the vast majority became inadmissible overnight.

In order to improve its performance, E&Y suggested only minor tweaks to EFSA’s processes and documentation.  However, the report did acknowledge that, “The scientific soundness of opinions does not appear to be clear enough as far as it concerns the use of data, the integration of different schools of thought, methodologies, rationales, uncertainties and...independence of experts”.

On EFSA’s independence: Great work!

Given these reservations, the report’s conclusions on EFSA’s independence were a little surprising.  “EFSA has performed its tasks in an independent way,” it witters, “Thanks to the progressive consolidation of one of the most advanced and robust system [sic] for independence”.

That said, it’s interesting to note the obvious inconsistency between the report’s conclusions and some of the supporting evidence.  For example, “As far as the Management Board is concerned, EFSA’s capacity to screen and manage interests of the Board members’ profiles is limited”.  And, despite improvements stemming from the recently adopted Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision-Making Processes, the E&Y report declares: “EFSA’s links with industry and industry-affiliated bodies...(and more specifically with ILSI) and the level of conflicts of interest that [EFSA] accepts is considered too high [by several stakeholders], due to the fact that the responsibility for completing and updating declarations of interest lies only with the holder”.  Note that E&Y clearly attributes this complaint to the stakeholders it questioned, rather than itself. 

Conflicted on conflicts

EFSA’s main weakness in terms of conflicts of interest, says the report, is that, “EFSA is still ineffective in mitigating criticisms towards its experts’ independence”.  In other words, instead of dealing with the serious problems highlighted by such organisations as Corporate Europe Observatory and Testbiotech, E&Y appears to suggest that EFSA should simply get better at public relations (PR).

A shorter leash for EFSA

In a clear case of having their cake, eating it and licking up all the crumbs, food industry representatives – including FoodDrinkEurope and EuropaBio  – “Ask[ed] for a higher involvement [sic] in EFSA’s decision-making processes”.  The same stakeholders would also like a “direct channel of communication” between themselves and EFSA, in order to reduce what they see as an “inefficient, costly and highly bureaucratic” process of opinion-forming on health claims.  Clearly, being the main beneficiaries of the carefully sculpted health claims and GM crop approval systems isn’t enough – they want to control the process more directly.

E&Y – selected for a predictable outcome?

E&Y is one of the ‘Big 4’ accounting firms.  The relationship between big companies and their auditors is a strange and controversial one.  Major banks, for example, pay their auditors many millions of pounds not only for auditing services, but for consultancy and tax advice as well.  As Prem Sikka, Professor of Accounting at the University of Essex, says, “The auditor dependency on companies for vast fees neuters any impulse to deliver an independent opinion on company accounts.

This mutually advantageous company–auditor relationship is in itself an enormous conflict of interest that can have massive real-world consequences.  Let’s not forget that E&Y was the auditor that gave the ill-fated Lehman Brothers bank a clean bill of health not long before the bank collapsed in 2008, at the start of the ongoing worldwide financial crisis.  It has, so far, escaped any penalty for its role in the affair.  In many cases, it may well be that the auditor’s main function is to make the company paying its bills look good.  It’s another case of crony capitalism in action.

Box ticking and good PR

Bearing all this in mind, we don’t think it’s much of a stretch to suggest that the E&Y ‘audit’ of EFSA might be another superficial assessment designed to boost the public profile of its employer – a ‘box-ticking exercise’, as commenter MaiLing describes it.  What we can say for definite is that this report looks a lot like a cosy chat between EFSA and its mates in Big Food, Big Ag and Big Biotech, which completely avoids the meat of the controversy that continues to surround the Authority. 

Call to action

  • Don’t fall for EFSA’s latest piece of spin!  The Authority still has big questions to answer in terms of its scientific performance on the scientific processes it uses to arrive at its opinions on issues as diverse as genetically modified (GM) foods, health claims and safe upper limits for vitamins and minerals.  There’s a good chance that the recently closed consultation on botanical heath claims may result in significant changes to at least one important aspect of its procedures.  Despite what the E&Y report says, it is far too early to make a firm decision as to whether EFSA’s latest revision of its operating procedures will be enough to wipe clean its record on conflicts of interest.

  • Please answer our poll on whether you think that E&Y was an appropriate choice of auditor for EFSA’s overall operation.