The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) failed to follow procedural rules when it allowed a senior member of staff to move to Syngenta, a company that produces genetically modified (GM) crops, according to a report by the European ombudsman.
The report was put together in response to a complaint filed by German research group Testbiotech regarding Suzy Renckens, former head of the unit responsible for risk assessment of genetically engineered crops at EFSA.
The ombudsman, Nikiforos Diamandouros, has instructed EFSA to strengthen its procedures for monitoring negotiations by current staff on future jobs, and make it clear that so-called 'revolving-door' negotiations may be a conflict of interest.
EFSA has until the end of March to respond to the findings, otherwise the ombudsman can refer the issue to the European Parliament.
EFSA and the European Commission have not admitted any wrongdoing. “We are very concerned that both EFSA and the Commission have tried to deny their responsibilities in this case by rejecting our original complaints,” said Christoph Then of Testbiotech.
“The authority, and also the European Commission which is backing EFSA, are eroding confidence in European institutions.”
Complaints about conflict of interest at EFSA have been growing louder. In April, a report from sustainable food research group Earth Open Source identified connections between EFSA scientific panel members and the US-based International Life Sciences Institute, a research institute funded by companies such as BASF, Bayer, DuPont, Kraft, Monsanto and Unilever.
EFSA has denied the conflict of interest allegations and said that because of the nature of its work, it would be impossible for them to have no overlap with industry.
The European Parliament's environment committee has taken a particular interest in the subject. In September, French MEP Corinne Lepage called for some EFSA funds to be withheld next year until it takes action in response to the allegations.
Two years’ notice
In response to the report, EFSA noted that former staff is required to advise the authority of future employment within two years of leaving.
Regarding the Renckens case, the authority said: "If we were aware of evidence to suggest she had breached her responsibilities toward EFSA after her departure, appropriate action would have been taken."