The European Ombudsman has issued a January 28, 2015, decision directing the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) to revise its conflict-of-interest rules after the agency “failed to ensure that those experts who work in academia declare all relevant information to EFSA.” Stemming from a complaint filed by GeneWatch, the decision focused on an EFSA working group on genetically modified (GM) insects that included an academic expert whose employer has financial ties to a biotechnology company that “promotes genetically modified insects.”

In particular, the European Ombudsman dismissed the agency’s reasoning that “employment by a university has never been considered a conflict of interest at EFSA,” as such a prohibition would disqualify the most qualified individuals from working groups. The decision instead places the onus on EFSA to gather additional information about the nature of the university’s financial relationships and the mechanisms in place “to prevent communication and instructions from the investment arm of the university influencing the academic arm.”

“EFSA has an obligation to ensure that the outside experts who advise it are of the highest quality possible,” states the decision. “It also has an obligation to ensure that these experts are, and are also seen to be, independent of any third party influence that might unduly affect their ability and willingness to give the best advice possible. The Ombudsman underlines that the independence of such advice, and the appearance of such independence in the eyes of EU citizens, are vital to building trust in the important work of EFSA.”