Top EU food agency official resigns
by Daniel Mason
The European Food Safety Authority has requested the resignation of senior board member Diána Bánáti after she accepted an "incompatible" position at the International Life Sciences Institute in Brussels. Bánáti's links with ILSI - a non-profit pro-GM research organisation funded partly by the food industry - have been criticised by members of the European Parliament and campaign groups for two years.
Today EFSA, a European Union agency, said that Bánáti had stepped down with immediate effect, having served four years as chairwoman of the authority's management board. She is expected to start a new role as executive and scientific director at ILSI in July. Bánáti courted controversy in 2010 when she resigned from a previous position at ILSI so that she could stay on at EFSA, amid claims of a conflict of interests.
In a statement published today the authority, based in Parma, Italy, said: "The code of conduct adopted by the EFSA management board obliges all members to consider possible public perception, in all facets of their professional and private life, in particular with regard to any activities which could raise doubts about their independence, even with respect to potential conflicts of interest. Board members shall not hold positions or interests that are considered incompatible with their role as a board member."
Campaign groups have criticised Bánáti's move as evidence of a 'revolving door' system between independent EU agencies and lobby groups. Nina Holland, from the Corporate Europe Observatory, said it was an "absolute scandal" that there was no cooling-off period between an agency board member leaving and being allowed to accept jobs in the industry. "EFSA's close links to the food lobby through ILSI Europe undermine the authority's ability to act in the public interest," she added. Part of EFSA's role is to provide independent scientific advice on the safety of foods, including genetically modified products.
Christoph Then, from anti-GM group Testbiotech, said: "Changes are needed at EFSA. The mechanisms for internal controls have been failing drastically. One reason for this is the composition of the management board which should control EFSA and safeguard its independence. So far, industry has too much influence on this board; its representatives should be excluded in future to give EFSA a real chance for a change."
It is the latest in a series of controversies surrounding EFSA. Last month it admitted it had not dealt properly with the case of Suzy Renckens, who left her role as head of the authority's GM unit in 2008 to join the biotech firm Syngenta. Meanwhile the European Commission has come under fire this year for nominating Mella Frewen - a former employee of biotech giant Monsanto and current director-general of lobby group FoodDrink Europe - for a position on EFSA's board. However, in its statement EFSA pointed out that the management board has "no power" over the authority's scientific decision-making.
The resignation was welcomed by Alliance of Liberals and Democrats MEP Corinne Lepage, who sits on parliament's environment committee. "I hope this is the signal of a break with EFSA past practices, that has not had up until now stringent enough policies to manage potential conflicts of interests," she said. "I encourage EFSA to further clarify their new policy and to take without delay concrete steps to end similar conflicts."
Green MEP José Bové added: "The clear conflict of interest in Ms Bánáti's role with ILSI made her position as EFSA chair completely inappropriate and untenable. Against this background, resignation was the only option and we only regret that it has taken so long for the agency to come to its senses. Given the sensitive nature of EFSA's work, especially as regards the authorisation of GMOs, the need for the independence of its staff and board is essential." In parliament, MEPs are due to vote tomorrow on whether or not to approve EFSA's 2010 budget in the light of the widespread concerns about board members' links to the industry.