Transparency vs. Confidentiality: EFSA’s new role as from March 2021
Last month, the European Council formally adopted the new Regulation on the transparency of the EU risk assessment in the food chain, which will be applicable as of 26 March 2021. As is in the name, the new provisions aim at increased transparency of EU risk assessment, which for a large deal means strengthening the reliability, objectivity and independence of the studies used by European Food Safety Authority (“EFSA”). As EFSA has been accused more than once of conflicts of interest, this is, in principle, a welcome development. For FBOs, the implications are however important – as will be demonstrated below.
The upcoming changes follow from the Commission Communication on the European Citizens Initiative on glyphosate, in which initiative EU citizens called for more transparency in scientific assessments and decision-making, and build upon the findings of the fitness check of the General Food Law. The new provisions will mainly amend the General Food Law. For reasons of consistency, the new provisions also introduce changes to eight legislative acts dealing with specific sectors of the food chain, including the Novel Food Regulation, the Additives Regulation and the GMO Regulation. Based on the publicly available proposal for the meanwhile adopted provisions on the transparency of EU risk assessment, this blogpost provides an overview of what applicants will be facing in authorization procedures for innovative food products in terms of transparency and confidentiality.
Pre-submission phase: union register of commissioned studies and general advice
Before submitting an authorization application, for instance for a Novel Food like cultured meat or insects or for a new additive, applicants will have to notify EFSA of any study they commissioned to support a future authorization application. These studies will become part of the union register of commissioned studies as managed by EFSA. The submitted studies will be made public only when an actual application follows and insofar the studies do not contain confidential information, regarding which a request for confidential treatment has been granted. The idea behind the union register is that companies (potentially) applying for an authorization submit all related information, which subsequently allows EFSA to cross-check the information on the studies performed. This way, applicants can no longer hold back unfavorable studies. This notification obligation also applies to laboratories in the EU that carry out those studies, but obviously not to non-EU laboratories as they fall outside the scope of new provisions. According to the EC’s fact sheet of 13 June 2019, consequences of non-compliance with the notification obligation shall result in a negative temporary stop in the risk assessment.
At the same time, applicants have the right to request EFSA for advice on the relevant provisions and the required content of the application for authorization in the pre-submission phase. This procedure is a response to industry demand, especially of SMEs, for further support in the preparation of applications. The advice shall, however, be provided without the input of the Scientific Panels that are in charge of the actual scientific assessment and shall not cover the specific design of a study. Furthermore, EFSA’s advice shall be made public. Based on the publicly available proposal for the transparency provisions, it seems that this will be done before an actual authorization application is being submitted.
Submission phase: citizens’ access to studies vs. confidentiality
The default setting under the new provisions is that all scientific data, studies and other information supporting applications for authorizations shall be made public by EFSA. While the new provisions aim at ensuring that stakeholders and the public have access to key safety related information being assessed by EFSA, duly justified confidentiality information shall not be made public. The new rules specify which types of information may be considered as such. As listed in the publicly available proposal, this includes production methods, the quantitative composition of the substance or product at stake, certain commercial relationships and other sensitive business information. It is the responsibility of the applicant to demonstrate that making public the information concerned would significantly harms the (commercial) interests concerned. Only in very limited and exceptional circumstances relating to foreseeable health effects and urgent needs to protect human health, animal health or the environment, confidential information shall be disclosed.
Specific sectoral food legislation will also include a list of certain types of information that may be treated confidentially. For example, a proposed change to the GMO Regulation includes the specification that certain DNA sequence information and breeding patterns and strategies may be treated confidentially. Next to the confidentiality rules, existing intellectual property rights, data protection rights and data exclusivity provisions for proprietary data, remain applicable.
When an applicant submits a request for confidentiality, it shall
provide a non-confidential version and a confidential version of the submitted information. If and when EFSA receives the submitted information, for example in case the Commission requires a scientific opinion as part of a novel food procedure, it shall publish the non-confidential version without delay and shall decide on the requested confidentiality within 10 days. Insofar the confidentiality request has not been accepted, EFSA shall subsequently publish the additional information after 2 weeks from the notification of its decision. Applicants that do not agree with EFSA’s decision may, under certain circumstances, challenge the decision before the Court of Justice of the European Union.
Once EFSA has published all the non-confidential information and before it carries out its scientific assessment, EFSA may consult third parties, including citizens, to identify whether other relevant information is available on the substance at stake. This new provision serves to mitigate the public concerns that EFSA’s assessment is primarily based on industry studies, more in particular on studies ordered by the applicant. The results of these consultations shall also be made public, as will be minority opinions to EFSA’s scientific output.
In case of a request for the renewal of an authorization, the applicant of the renewal will have the obligation to inform EFSA on its planned studies under the new rules. EFSA shall subsequently consult stakeholders and the public on the planned studies and, taking into account the received comments, provide the applicant with advice on the content of the intended renewal application. The reason behind this pre-submission procedure is to make use of the existing experience and knowledge on the substance or product in question. The European Commission expects that the notification obligation will have a positive effect on the evidence base of EFSA, avoids the unnecessary repetition of studies, and will provide the potential applicant with useful advice. It should, however, be noted that also in this case EFSA’s advice will not stand in the way of the subsequent assessment of the renewal application by the Scientific Panels.
Additional controls on the conduct of studies
The new provisions also include measures to ensure the quality and objectivity of the studies used by EFSA for its risk assessment. First of all, the European Commission will have the right to perform controls, including audits, to verify the compliance of testing facilities with relevant standards. Competent authorities of the Member States will be involved in these controls. Through coordination with OECD GLP auditing programs, the control in non-EU countries will be facilitated as well. Secondly, the European Commission will have the right to request EFSA to commission verification studies. Such action shall only be taken in exceptional circumstances, such as in case of serious controversies or conflicting results, and will be financed by the EU.
The new provisions address public concerns regarding transparency, while on the other hand acknowledge that confidentiality is key to not cut down on incentives for innovation by food businesses. In other words: the new provisions seek to balance transparency and confidentiality. Food businesses are advised to substantively consider their commercial interests when submitting a dossier for authorization, since confidentiality will only be granted upon duly justified requests. Moreover, the union register for submitted studies forces food businesses to carefully plan their studies at an early stage since also studies with less favorable outcomes will in principle be made public and scrutinized on inconsistencies with later studies. At the same time, more guidance is expected from EFSA in the pre-submission phase, possibly speeding up the actual authorization procedure. Given the fact that the new provisions will apply from less than 20 months from now, food businesses may consider speeding up or delaying their application for authorization, depending on their needs.