On Thursday, EU judges confirmed that protecting health and the environment is more important than confidentiality for expert commentators. We worked with Pesticide Action Network Europe to win the landmark case against the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA calls itself ‘the EU risk assessment body for food and feed safety [providing] independent scientific advice to risk managers’. By risk managers, they mean EU institutions.
We argued that independent scientific advice should be just that – independent – and that everyone has a right to know who is giving advice, and what advice they are giving.
EFSA plays a key role in approving thousands of products that end up in the food chain and the environment. These include pesticides, food additives and genetically modified organisms.
In recent years, EFSA has been widely criticised for its close ties with industry. To respond to the criticism, the agency has implemented a new policy designed to ensure the independence of its scientific panels. Yet a 2013 report by Corporate Europe Observatory titled Unhappy meal; The European Food Safety Authority’s independence problem, found that half of the 209 scientists sitting on the EFSA’s scientific panels have direct or indirect ties with the industries they are meant to regulate.
This means economic interests can undermine the independence of the scientific advice about the safety of the food we eat and the chemicals we are exposed to.
When it comes to pesticides, this advice affects both the environment and human health. And the European Court of Justice agreed with us when we argued that everyone has a right to know how a decision was reached. The court agreed with the need for transparency in the decision-making process when it comes to chemicals in the food we eat.
This is also a great victory for campaigners and the public – too often, information about scientific advice is withheld from the public and undue pressure from external economic interests can make its way into decisions that concern everyone.
Our success means that if EFSA or any other EU institution wants to withhold information in the future, they must have a very strong reason for doing so, for each individual on the scientific panel.
This judgment is a great victory for people in the EU because it will remove the anonymity of the decision-making processes, which is often justified by a generic excuse of protecting privacy. Campaigners, scientists and the public will enjoy greater access and increased scrutiny of how decisions are taken in EU institutions.
On the same day, we won a second case in the EU court, when judges ruled information on environmental law breaking should be public.