EU Is out of Step over Regulation of Modified Products

Sir, The premise of Steven Druker’s rant that the US criticises Europe’s application of the precautionary principle yet uses it itself (“America’s hypocrisy over modified produce,” May 18) is absurd. The example he invokes to prove his case, the requirement in US law for the review of food additives before they are sold, proves exactly the opposite.

Under American law, a new food or food ingredient is either “generally recognised as safe” (GRAS) or it is a food additive and requires government review and approval. The maker of the product gets to determine whether or not the product is GRAS.

The objective of pre-marketing regulation generally is to circumscribe potentially high-risk categories of products, such as food additives (which are, by definition, not generally recognised as safe), pesticides, prescription drugs, and nuclear power plants. In contrast, all of the gene-spliced, or “genetically modified” (GM) plants now on the market are widely recognised to be in a negligible or very low risk category, as will be most future varieties.

The US National Research Council observed 15 years ago: “With classical techniques of gene transfer, a variable number of genes can be transferred, the number depending on the mechanism of transfer; but predicting the precise number or the traits that have been transferred is difficult, and we cannot always predict the [traits] that will result. With organisms modified by molecular methods, we are in a better, if not perfect, position to predict the [traits].”

An analysis by the European Union that summarises the conclusions of 81 different EU-funded research projects spanning 15 years concluded that because gene-spliced plants and foods are made with highly precise and predictable scientific techniques, they are at least as safe, and often safer, than their conventional counterparts. And David Byrne, EU commissioner for health and consumer protection, has acknowledged that Europe’s precautionary labeling and traceability rules have nothing to do with protecting consumer health or the natural environment.

Therein lies the fundamental difference between the US and European approaches to the precautionary principle. Many, if not most, countries impose extra scrutiny on higher risk categories of activities, technologies, and products. But out of ignorance, caprice, or protectionism, Europe has chosen vastly to over-regulate a negligible-risk, proven, beneficial technology.