Conflicts of interest in UK food regulation “puts public health at risk” – new research
By: Tom Walters
Last updated: Tuesday, 7 February 2023
- Research finds substantial conflicts of interest in the bodies advising the Department for the Environment, Food & Rural Affairs (Defra) or the Food Standards Agency (FSA)
- Recommends that commercial conflicts of interest should no longer be allowed to participate in UK food policymaking
Food regulatory institutions in the UK should have robust mechanisms for addressing commercial conflicts of interest, argues a new research paper.
The research, published jointly by Professor Erik Millstone of the Science Policy Research Unit, at the University of Sussex Business School, and Professor Tim Lang of the Centre for Food Policy, City, University of London, has found 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 UK food regulatory institutions’, published in Nature Food, reviews declarations of conflicts of interest in the FSA Board and Committee since its creation and make four recommendations on how to reverse this worrying practice.
It has found that those conflicts of interest have made UK 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 has found that 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.
Prof Millstone, a University of Sussex expert on food chemical safety policy, said:
“Our research examines which individuals are playing influential roles in UK 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 UK, which, if not addressed, has the potential to put the public’s health at risk.
“Food policy should prioritise 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 UK government as more important than protecting public and environmental health.”
Tim Lang 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.”
In response to these findings the authors recommend four points 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:
- Our evidence shows that all people with commercial conflicts of interest should no longer be allowed to participate in UK food policymaking.
- Our research finds that public funding for food safety research should be increased sufficiently for UK-based experts not to be dependent on commercial sponsorship.
- Our 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 UK.
- Finally, our research finds that MPs, and especially the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, should scrutinise UK Government food policy decision-making to ensure that those 3 recommendations are implemented.