The Politics of Precaution: Regulating Health, Safety, and Environmental Risks in Europe and the United States

By David Vogel | Go to book overview

CHAPTER THREE
Food Safety and Agriculture

MANY FOOD SAFETY REGULATIONS adopted in the United States between 1960 and 1990, most notably for suspected carcinogens in the food supply, were more risk-averse than those adopted in individual European countries, as well as by the EU. But more recently, the European Union has approved several regulations for food safety and agricultural production that are more stringent than those of the United States. These include: beef hormones—banned in the EU in 1985, but still permitted in the United States; the milk hormone BST—approved for use in the United States in 1993, but permanently banned in Europe in 1999; the introduction of genetically modified (GM) plants, food, and animal feed—permitted in the United States since 1986, but restricted in Europe beginning in 1990; and antibiotics in animal feed—significantly restricted in Europe in 1998 and 2003—but not in the United States. Some more stringent European regulations have restricted the introduction of new agricultural technologies, such as bovine somatotropin (BST) and GM varieties, while others, such as for beef hormones and antibiotics in animal feed, banned agricultural production methods that were previously used extensively on both sides of the Atlantic. Differences in public risk perceptions, differential risk assessment criteria, and the preferences of influential policy makers have each played a role in shaping these divergent policy outcomes.

A number of food safety regulations were affected by a divergence in transatlantic public risk perceptions. During the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, public concerns about the risks of carcinogens in the food supply were greater in the United States than in Europe, while during the 1980s, the safety risks of beef hormones became highly salient in Europe, but not in the United States. During the late 1980s, activists in the United States persuaded many Americans that the risks of consuming apples treated with Alar, a plant-growth regulator, were both credible and unacceptable, while Alar’s safety risks did not become politically salient in Europe.

The increased stringency of many European regulations after 1990— most notably the EU’s ban on BST and the EU’s increasingly restrictive policies toward the planting and consumption of GM varieties—was strongly affected by a series of dramatic, highly visible food safety policy failures that began during the mid-1990s. The most important of these was the belated 1996 admission of the British government that BSE or

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