Conflicts of interest in UK food regulation 'puts public health at risk,' argue experts
Food regulatory institutions in the U.K. should have robust mechanisms for addressing commercial conflicts of interest, argues a new article published in the journal Nature Food.
The research, published jointly by Emeritus Professor Tim Lang of the Center for Food Policy, City, University of London, and Emeritus Professor Erik Millstone of the Science Policy Research Unit, at the University of Sussex Business School, suggests that not one of the bodies advising the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Food Standards Agency (FSA) is free from conflicts of interest.
The study, "An approach to conflicts of interest in U.K. food regulatory institutions," reviews declarations of conflicts of interest in the FSA Board and Committee since its creation and makes four recommendations on how to reverse this practice.
It suggests that those conflicts of interest have made U.K. food governance vulnerable to "agency capture"—the theory that regulatory agencies may be dominated by the interests they regulate and not by the public interest.
Additionally, their research highlights how the Advisory Committee on Releases to the Environment, which advises Defra ministers on the safety and acceptability on GM crops, consists of seven members, of whom only one declares no conflicts of interest. Furthermore, between the other six Committee members they have declared conflicts of interest with 16 different industrial corporations.
In response to these findings the authors make four recommendations, which they suggest will restore trustworthiness in the regulatory process—particularly considering the various food safety crises of the 1980s and 1990s.
They conclude that:
- Their evidence shows that all people with commercial conflicts of interest should no longer be allowed to participate in U.K. food policymaking.
- Their research finds that public funding for food safety research should be increased sufficiently for U.K.-based experts not to be dependent on commercial sponsorship.
- Their research shows that the government should actively focus on commissioning research that could contribute effectively to improving food safety and food-related public health in the U.K.
- Finally, their research finds that MPs, and especially the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, should scrutinize U.K. Government food policy decision-making to ensure that those 3 recommendations are implemented.
Professor Tim Lang, City, University of London, said, "Public trust can only be guaranteed if commerce is seen not to be involved. Scientists themselves must ask themselves ethical questions about whether it is right to do commercial research if it undermines collective trust."
Professor Millstone, a University of Sussex expert on food chemical safety policy, said, "Our research examines which individuals are playing influential roles in U.K. food policymaking, particularly at Defra and the FSA. Our research highlights that many of these have conflicts of interest and their influence risks undermining the trustworthiness of both Defra and the FSA and of food safety policymaking in the U.K., which, if not addressed, has the potential to put the public's health at risk.
"Food policy should prioritize protecting public and environmental health over the commercial interests of food businesses, but that is not happening. Commercial interests are too often being treated by the U.K. government as more important than protecting public and environmental health."
More information: Erik Millstone et al, An approach to conflicts of interest in UK food regulatory institutions, Nature Food (2022). DOI: 10.1038/s43016-022-00666-w
Journal information: Nature Food
Provided by City University London