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EU Food Authority responds to letter on misleading communication on Bisphenol A risks, claims ‘simplification’ for ‘accessibility’

On Friday 17th April we finally got a response to our letter to the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on why their press release & public briefing on 21st January had stated that there was ‘no health concern’ from the hormone disrupting chemical Bisphenol A (BPA), when their expert panel had actually stated that there was a ‘low health concern’. The letter from EFSA’s Executive Director, Bernhard Url, argues that it was legitimate to make this change in order to make these materials ‘accessible’ to non-specialist audiences. We disagree with this assessment.

The letter states:

“I think it is important to stress that EFSA’s communication materials should be seen as an explanation rather than a substitute for our scientific outputs. Their purpose is to raise awareness and provide an entry point for non-specialist audiences about EFSA’s scientific work. This requires the use of accessible language and often simplification of complex scientific concepts.”

It is clearly correct that there is often a need for “the use of accessible language and often simplification” in information for the public and media. The question is whether the change of text from ‘low concern’ to ‘no concern’ can be described as simplification, or whether this is an effort to obfuscate some of the results of the risk assessment. There is a difference between simplification and changing – and we would argue that the public is capable of understanding the difference between ‘no’ and ‘low’.

On the one hand, it is good that EFSA corrected their abstract (an abstract that excluded key information) as a result of our letters, but on the other, it is disappointing that they were not prepared to do the same with the press release and briefing. The ‘no concern’ claim for the Bisphenol A assessment is now repeated in EFSA’s Annual Report too.

Is it right for a public agency to change the meaning of the conclusion of a scientific report in order to make it simpler? It’s quite strange to have a scientific committee say one thing, then communicate something different to the public.

It’s not just about a short press release – EFSA’s briefing on Bisphenol A is very detailed, and repeatedly states “BPA poses no health risk”. Surely there is space in this briefing for a summary of the real conclusion of the scientists on aggregate (real world) exposure to BPA? See page 23 of the Executive Summary of the risk assessment for the actual text [our emphasis]:

In addition, the CEF Panel concludes that the central estimates for aggregated exposure to BPA via the dietary and non-dietary sources (dust, toys, cosmetics and thermal paper) for the highest exposed groups, which includes infants, children and adolescents, is also below the t-TDI of 4 micro g/kg bw per day, indicating that the health concern for BPA is low at the estimated levels of exposure. However, the CEF Panel noted that there is a considerable uncertainty in the exposure estimate for the non- dietary sources.”

Michael Warhurst, Executive Director of CHEM Trust, said today:

It is good to see that EFSA corrected the abstract of their risk assessment for BPA to point out that the experts did conclude that there was a ‘low health concern’ about real-world exposure, rather than the ‘no concern’ they previously stated. However, we are surprised that they consider it acceptable to still state ‘no health concern’ in their briefing materials for the media and public, in the claimed name of ‘simplification’. 

We remain concerned that EFSA is not taking a balanced view of this issue, and that it is too focussed on reassuring the public rather than being open and transparent about their scientific assessment.

EFSA’s selection of experts, openness and procedures have already been criticised by NGOs including Corporate Europe Observatory. As a result of our experience with EFSA over bisphenol A, CHEM Trust certainly shares these concerns.

It’s also worth noting that CHEM Trust does have other concerns with the way the expert panel decided which research to use in calculating the risks of Bisphenol A – see our blog post written on the day of release for a summary.

This blog has been covered by Food Packaging Forum.