BRUSSELS - The European Commission has defended its pick of a food industry lobbyist to help run its food regulator, the European Food Safety Agency (Efsa) in Parma, Italy.
The commission on 10 February chose Mella Frewen - the president of Brussels-based lobby group FoodDrinkEurope, who previously worked for Monsanto, a US producer of genetically modified food - as one of 14 candidates to join the Efsa management board.
If selected by a European Parliament jury in the next few weeks, she will keep her FoodDrinkEurope job while doing the unpaid Efsa job.
Commission spokesman Frederic Vincent said Frewen went forward "based on capability" and under an Efsa rubric which says the board should have people with a "background in organisations representing consumers and other interests in the food chain."
Efsa spokesman Ian Palombi said the board runs day-to-day internal business, but the scientific panels that decide which products get the green light are composed of "independent experts."
For her part, Lisa McCooey, FoodDrinkEurope communications director, said she does not see any conflict of interest: "If elected onto the Board of Efsa ... Mrs. Frewen would partake in its work in a personal capacity and not on behalf of any interests - industry or otherwise."
McCooey added that Frewen wants the job due to her "personal interest" in Efsa as a "scientist." Frewen has a masters in marine ecology from the National University of Ireland.
The commission nomination was brought to light by pro-transparency NGO Corporate Europe Observatory. The group's Nina Holland said that if picked Frewen will replace outgoing board member Matthias Horst, a top lobbyist for German food producers.
"It's a bit more than having 'a background in the food industry' - that's a being a food lobbyist. It's a very strange set-up," she noted. "The board decides on Efsa's work programme and on internal rules, like conflict of interest, and also who is on the scientific panels. It has a lot of power," she added.
Efsa on Monday (5 March) published new rules on the 'independent' panels after attracting controversy last year.
A report by German paper Suddeutsche Zeitung last year noted that one Efsa panelist who worked for Kraft Foods, Albert Flynn, was involved in getting a positive decision for a Kraft Foods claim, while another panelist, Carlo Agostoni, was paid to speak at conferences by Nestle, Danone, Heinz, Hipp, Humana and Mead Johnson.
In another Efsa panel dealing with the health impact of chemicals used by the food industry, 10 out of 13 experts had industry connections.
The Court of Auditors is to issue a report on conflicts of interests at Efsa and three other EU bodies by the end of June. Monica Macovei, an MEP tasked with looking into how the agencies are spending money, has threatened to withhold signing off Efsa's accounts if the findings are negative.