Top EU Court Rules Public Interest Is More Important Than Protection Of Commercial Interests
from the healthy-precedent dept
As Techdirt noted some years back, there has been a steady push to strengthen the protection afforded to trade secrets. Similarly, the argument is often made that transparency must be subordinated to protecting commercial interests, as happened recently in an important struggle over access to information in the EU. It concerned the safety of the chemical glyphosate, widely used as a herbicide, for example in Roundup from Monsanto (now owned by the German chemical giant, Bayer). The EU body responsible for assessing risks associated with the food chain is EFSA (European Food Safety Authority). As part of the process of renewing approval for glyphosate, which was granted in 2017 for five more years, EFSA conducted a review of the toxicity and carcinogenicity of the chemical, drawing on a variety of published and unpublished data. Whether glyphosate increases the risk of cancer is a highly contentious area, with widely differing expert views:
In March 2015 the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working group of experts classified Glyphosate in Group 2A (probable human carcinogens) with strong evidence for a genotoxic mechanism of carcinogenicity. The Joint WHO/FAO Expert Meeting on Pesticide Residues (JMPR), which is responsible for assessing the risk of pesticide residues in Food in Codex, originally evaluated Glyphosate in 2004. JMPR did not find evidence for carcinogenicity in humans and assigned an Acceptable Daily Intake (ADI).
In 2018, a US court ordered Monsanto to pay $289 million in damages to a former school groundkeeper who sued the company after he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma, which he claimed was caused by his exposure to glyphosate. The award was later reduced to $78 million, still a significant sum.
In the EU, a group of four members of the European Parliament, and another individual, asked separately to see two key industry studies that were used by EFSA in coming to its decision in favor of approval. EFSA refused, because it claimed that disclosure of the information might seriously harm the commercial and financial interests of the companies that had submitted the data, and that there was no overriding public interest justifying disclosure. Those seeking access appealed to one of the EU’s highest, but least-known, courts, the General Court of the European Union. Its job is to hear actions taken against the institutions of the EU, as in this case. The court has just issued its judgment (pdf):
an overriding public interest in disclosing the studies is deemed to exist. EFSA could not therefore refuse to disclose them on the ground that that would have an adverse effect on the protection of the commercial interests of the owners of the requested studies.
Potentially, that ruling could have a big impact on future cases where EU institutions seek to prevent information relating to health and the environment being released on the grounds it would allegedly harm commercial interests. It’s also a setback for the general idea that business secrets should trump transparency.