Thursday, March 14, 2013


Over 7 billion people in this planet depend on a dozen or so food safety agencies, national as well as international to guide them to buy safe foods in the market. These include WHO, FAO, the FDA, EFSA, FSA of UK etc and these organizations are supposed to be staffed with unbiased experts in food toxicology, food chemistry, biochemistry, microbiology and other complimentary scientific disciplines. While under normal circumstances no one doubts the integrity of these experts, to day questions regarding their bias is raised too frequently to be ignored easily. Probably this has happened because of the enormous financial and political clout some of the multinational food giants wield over the governments in many countries. This results in distorted decisions, delayed decisions and no decision at all in many cases. Here is an account of the ground reality that exists to day in Europe and the serious question raised regarding the integrity of the agency that is supposed to sit in judgment over the safety data submitted by the industry which often goes in favor of the latter in majority of cases.

The incisive article below on the food sweetener aspartame precisely nails the problem of scientific decision making at the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA accepts weak industry data claiming safety for a risky product, but relentlessly finds fault with and dismisses independent scientific studies that find risk. The 2012 study of Prof G-E Seralini and team on GM maize and Roundup is one example among many of a carefully designed and conducted study that found risk but which was dismissed by EFSA. Other examples include shedloads of independent studies showing risks from the plastics chemical bisphenol A, which EFSA dismissed in favour of a few industry-funded studies claiming safety. This asymmetric scrutiny is applied by EFSA on a regular basis, as confirmed in an interview with former EFSA GMO panel member Prof. Joachim Schiemann, who said of EFSA's scrutiny of the scientific literature on GMOs: "Of course, studies that describe potential negative environmental effects of GMOs are discussed particularly intensively."( panel.html). According to a study by food policy expert Erik Millstone and colleagues, this practice is interpreted by the European public as an illegitimate support for the biotechnology industry on the part of the supposedly impartial risk assessor.  Millstone and colleagues state, "greater institutional care was taken to try to avoid false positives [when a study finds risk from a product that's really safe] than to avoid false negatives [when a study claims safety for a product that is actually not safe]. That implies that critical scrutiny has been applied in an asymmetrical fashion that prima facie seems difficult to reconcile with a precautionary approach". (Millstone E, van Zwanenberg P, Marris C, Levidow L, Torgersen H: Science in Trade Disputes Related to Potential Risks: Comparative Case Studies. Seville: European Commission; 2004.).  EFSA is not alone in this practice of asymmetric scrutiny of scientific studies: it's fairly universal among regulatory agencies worldwide. A major problem with EFSA, as Millstone says in the article below, is that many of the experts that write EFSA opinions have direct or indirect conflicts of interest with industry.

Interestingly some of these agencies are so indebted to the industry that they are totally blind to the welfare and safety of their constituency, viz the consumers. Witness the struggle going on in the US where a substantial segment of the population want clear declaration of presence of GM ingredients in foods marketed, under their "right to know" what they are eating, on the front of the pack. The President as well as the law making bodies in that country continue to dither without taking any decision lest they will adversely hurt the interests of industry! Even assuming that GM foods are absolutely safe, what harm is there if the same is declared on the label like what is in vogue in other countries which have cleared some of the GM foods. It is easy for the US to do this because if such a law is enforced to day more than 85% of the products in the market will carry such a declaration! An unintended consequence of such a policy of procrastination on the part of the governments, will be to discourage honest scientists from pursuing independent studies in food safety area, lest they will be targets for unfair criticism by the industry and fellow scientists who may be on the pay roll of the industry! Consumers world over must rise against such a situation and take non-violent action to impress on the industry that it cannot ignore their interests any more.


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