EFSA's Bernhard Url pledges transparency boost
Addressing food safety MEPs on Monday, European Food Safety Authority Executive director-designate Bernhard Url vowed to increase the transparency of the Authority if appointed by its management board to replace Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle. MEPs insisted on the need to ensure the independence of experts, in the wake of new challenges for public trust in food.
"Our first priority is to get the science right," said Mr Url in his opening statement. "We need the best experts, methodology and data" so that EFSA "remains at the cutting edge of risk assessment," he said, pointing out that risk assessment has become increasingly complex, in particular with new technologies. Mr Url's other priorities would be to build the cooperation agenda and increase the independence, openness and transparency of EFSA, he added. He will also seek to improve the Authority's communication, to better attract young high-level experts, and to strenghten the dialogue with the European Parliament, he added.
"EFSA in 2014 does not have a problem with conflict of interest, but with perceived conflicts of interest. To adress these concerns, a transparency boost is needed, to complement the impartiality safeguards that are in place. Guiding principle should be 'open risk assessment", covering the entire life cycle of the risk assessment process " Mr Url said.
In reply to Peter Liese (EPP, DE), who asked how EFSA could better communicate with small and medium-sized companies, Mr Url highlighted the recent progress and acknowledged that more could be done, with tools such as webinars. "But this is a resource issue," he said.
To Linda McAvan, who said that "Public confidence in food has been challenged in the last parliamentary term" citing the e.coli outbreak, the horsemeat scandal, and the challenge concerning independence of experts, Mr Url responded that "EFSA has a problem with some parts of civil society" that requires more transparency from the Authority. "This way I hope that people will see that our scientists strive to find the best solutions," he said.
Chris Davies (ALDE, UK) enquired about EFSA's links to large food manufacturers. "Do you keep your distance with them, or would you acknowledge that you seek their advice?" he said. "We have clear rules, people employed by the industry are not allowed to contribute to our work," said Mr Url. However, their expertise may be used through experts hearings, he added.
Satu Hassi (Greens/EFA, FI) highlighted EFSA's reliance on scientists' declarations of interests and asked if checks could be performed and sanctions applied. "We rely on the honesty of persons but all declarations are online, so there is something like a social control. We are very hesitant to do investigative work. We check, on a random basis, a rather small number" of declarations, Mr Url said, adding that "EFSA has a breach of trust procedure, that has been applied about four or five times".
In reply to Julie Girling (ECR, UK) on EFSA's independence and relationship with the European Commission, Mr Url said "the Commission is by far the biggest requester for EFSA" but highlighted the Authority's "self-tasking function" allowing it to instigate work on every topic deemed useful. "In my view EFSA is independent enough when it comes to prioritization of work," he added.
Following the resignation of Ms Catherine Geslain-Lanéelle, former EFSA Executive Director, on 1 September 2013, the European Commission launched the selection procedure for a new executive director. The EFSA Management Board formally appointed Mr Url, the current acting Executive Director on 20 March. He was selected from a short-list of four candidates drawn up by the European Commission. The mandate of the new EFSA Executive Director will run for five years (renewable) from the appointment.
In the chair: Matthias Groote (S&D, DE)
Recording of the hearing
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