Conflicts of interest in UK food regulation ‘put public health at risk’, say experts

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Food regulatory institutions in the UK should have robust mechanisms in place to deal with commercial conflicts of interest, argues a new article published in the journal Nature Food.

The research, jointly published by Professor Emeritus Tim Lang of the Center for Food Policy, City, University of London, and Professor Emeritus Erik Millstone of the Science Policy Research Unit, University of Sussex Business School, suggests that none of the bodies advising the Department for the Environment, Food and 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’, examines conflict of interest disclosures 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 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.

In addition, their research shows that the advisory committee on emissions to the environment, which advises Defra ministers on the safety and acceptability of GM crops, is made up of seven members, with only one declaring that they have no conflicts of interest. In addition, six other members of the Committee have declared conflicts of interest with 16 different industrial companies.

In response to these findings, the authors make four recommendations, which they suggest will restore trust 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 food policymaking in the UK.
  • Their research finds that public funding for food safety research should be increased sufficiently so that UK-based experts are not dependent on commercial sponsorship.
  • Their research shows that the government should actively focus on commissioning research that could effectively contribute to improving food safety and food-related public health in the UK
  • Finally, their research finds that MPs, and in particular the Commons Health and Social Care Select Committee, should scrutinize the UK government’s food policy decision-making process to ensure these 3 recommendations are implemented.

Professor Tim Lang, City, University of London, said: ‘Public trust can only be secured if trade is seen not to be involved. Scientists themselves need to ask ethical questions about whether it is right to do commercial research if it undermines collective trust.”

Professor Millstone, a chemical food safety policy expert at the University of Sussex, said: ‘Our research looks at which individuals are playing influential roles in shaping UK food policy, particularly at Defra and the FSA. Our research shows that many of these have conflicts of interest and their influence risks undermining the accountability of both Defra and the FSA and UK food security policy, which, if left unaddressed, has the potential to undermine risk to public health.

“Food policy should prioritize the protection of public health and the environment over the commercial interests of food companies, but this is not happening. Commercial interests are too often treated by the UK government as more important than protecting public health and environmental”.

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

Provided by City University of London

Quote: Conflicts of interest in UK food regulation ‘put public health at risk’, say experts (2023, Jan 18) Retrieved Jan 18, 2023 from -conflicts-uk-food-health -experts.html

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