The European Food Safety Authority Looks to Study the Impact of Crowdsourcing Food Risk Assessment

On World Food Day in October 2015, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), announced that it would “explore the future challenges and the latest thinking and techniques on openness that will assist the organization in moving beyond dialogue towards sustainable stakeholder interaction.”[1] The initiative from the advisory body mandated to perform risk assessment, provide scientific advice and communicate risks related to the food chain for 500 million consumers in the EU, included a call for tenders requesting proposals of up to €250,000 to study the application of citizen science and crowdsourcing to food and feed risk assessment.

The shift to openness

EFSA’s interest in more open ways of working is not sudden. Created and based in Parma, Italy, the agency has been mired in controversy after its widely rejected finding of the safety of genetically modified (GM) cereals in 2002. Less than half the population of the EU believe that advice on food-related risks is independent of commercial or political interests.[2]

The GM foods controversy erupted when an independent researcher published his team’s findings about the adverse long-term health effects of GM maize, a product EFSA had previously recommended (and the EU had authorized) was safe for consumption.[3] It also emerged later that 12 of 21 experts on a Genetically-Modified Organism (GMO) advisory panel that was key to the approval of a GM potato had conflicts of interest.[4]

Recognizing the dangers of public distrust of its recommendations, in mid-2014, EFSA laid out a roadmap[5] to transform itself into an Open Science organization:

The Open EFSA initiative will follow three key steps: by the end of 2014, EFSA will finalize a list of possible actions that should be subject to a cost/benefit analysis; from 2015, as and when each cost/benefit analysis is completed EFSA will develop a plan to prioritize each action considering their added value; finally, from 2016 onwards, EFSA will roll out the actions as and when possible.              

Discussion paper on the Transformation to an Open EFSA

EFSA is hoping to learn whether crowdsourcing can help: 1) to solve the issues of voluminous data analysis; and 2) to increase the organization’s trustworthiness and credibility.

The Open Call for tenders

As part of that plan, EFSA has decided to “explore the risks and benefits of citizen science and crowdsourcing as an innovative way to process data and increase the openness of EFSA[6] to achieve the larger goal of transparency and increasing trust.

Like an increasing number of government agencies around the world, EFSA is looking to go beyond traditional panels and committees and to explore opportunities for enabling citizens to leverage their expertise and participate more closely in EFSA’s decision-making process.

Answering food-risk related questions[7] such as the prevalence of a given contaminated food item or the final amount of pesticide residues in a crop or risk prediction such as the probability that an animal will be affected by a disease or even collecting data such as the geographical distribution of a species of agricultural interest is a resource-intensive task, especially as the information available for such research increases in quantity and complexity. The possibility of using crowdsourcing is naturally an attractive option given the large financial and human capital requirements of conventional research. The advantages of leveraging the “collective intelligence available via the internet capable of digesting the enormous quantities of data” [8] are clear to see.

There are already several examples of more open scientific initiatives in Europe including OpenAIRE (under which research institutions across Europe are experimenting with shared data and publication repositories), OpenMinTeD (fosters and facilitates the use of text and data mining technologies in the scientific publications world), ENGAGE (facilitating the publication and reuse of open distributed and diverse PSI data, providing a single point of access to data as well as relevant tools).

With the aim of identifying if and how crowdsourcing food risk assessment can improve outcomes, this tender requires the contractor to provide evidence of experience in previous crowdsourcing initiatives, perform feasibility studies for EFSA’s specific objective of food risk assessment using crowdsourcing and implement pilot studies to gauge the contractor’s capability in data collection, analysis and literature review. But there is also the need to rebuild trust which is why as part of the feasibility studies, the contractor is required to “analyze societal expectation” to understand how the deployment of crowdsourcing by EFSA is perceived by the citizens of the EU and competent authorities.

Conclusion

It remains to be seen whether crowdsourcing is a solution to the problem of lack of trust in the agency or itself creates new problems, including the “disproportionate influence of a limited number of actors.” [9] The jury is also out as to whether EFSA itself is configured to be able to take advantage of the adoption of crowdsourcing. The hope, however, is that this path-breaking funded experiment can help to shed more light on when and how crowdsourcing — by scientists and citizen scientists alike — can help tackle the serious problem of food safety and security.

 

References

[1]Briefing note for the session on Open Risk Assessment: Methods and Expertise” at the EFSA Expo 2015, Milan.

[2]A Policy on Independence and Scientific Decision Making Processes of the European Food Safety Authority”, EFSA, 2011.

[3]Scientific Opinion on the application (EFSA-GMO-BE-2012-110) for the placing on the market of tissue-selective herbicide-tolerant genetically modified maize MON 87427 for food and feed uses, import and processing under Regulation (EC) No 1829/2003 from Monsanto”, EFSA panel on Genetically Modified Organisms(GMO), (EFSA Journal 2015;13(6):4130)

[4]Conflicts of interest at the European Food Safety Authority erode public confidence”, Claire Robinson et al, 2013, J Epidemiol Community Health doi:10.1136/jech-2012-202185

[5]Discussion Paper on the Transformation to an Open EFSA”, Public consultation paper, 2014.

[6]Programming document of European Food Safety Authority 2014-2016”, EFSA, 2013.

[7]Tender Specifications”, EFSA, (REF:OC/EFSA/ AMU/2015/03)

[8]Tender Specifications”, EFSA, (REF:OC/EFSA/ AMU/2015/03)

[9]Tender Specifications”, EFSA, (REF:OC/EFSA/ AMU/2015/03)

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