Europe’s High Standards—How the U.S. Can Improve

When it comes to food-safety standards, Europe has some of the strictest laws and regulations in place. In fact, many of the foods that we eat regularly here in the U.S. are banned in the European Union. Europeans prefer their veggies sans GMOs and their chicken air-chilled instead of washed in chlorinated water. Meanwhile, Americans are stuck with corn with a side of herbicide and their milk chock full of antibiotics, resulting in resistant bacteria.

The main difference is that the EU takes a precautionary stance regarding any potential harm caused by food production, whereas the U.S. tends to favor the giants that dominate the food industry over the warnings of scientific studies. The food industry in the EU is regulated by the centralized European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), which is an independent committee that conducts scientific risk assessments. Meanwhile, in the U.S. the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) evaluates the safety of food additives, the Department of Agriculture (USDA) prevents the spread of invasive plants, and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) determines environmental and human health risk of pesticides and chemicals. This means that in the U.S., foods themselves are not required to be subjected to mandatory review by the FDA, unlike the EFSA. In general, the EU is quick to act, whereas in America, adhering to FDA regulations is mostly voluntary, as decided by the state or company.

To illustrate these differences, we can turn to a multitude of examples, including how livestock is raised, the list of approved food additives and the use of GMOs. For instance, organic arsenic is used extensively in the large-scale meat industry in the U.S., because it makes animals grow faster while turning their meat an appealing pink. However, several studies have shown that this practice can produce inorganic arsenic in meats, as well as tap water and crops such as rice. While certain U.S. manufacturers have since voluntarily pulled this additive, and multiple groups have voiced their concerns to the FDA, the FDA has made no official regulation. Meanwhile in Europe, arsenic-based compounds have never been approved as safe for animal feed.

Beyond the meat industry, the EU and U.S. differ greatly over the use of GMOs in crops. Currently in the U.S., regulatory agencies do not regulate biotechnology or review genetically modified foods, which is highly controversial. This means that the FDA is reliant upon the voluntary action of biotech companies that wish to report the genes introduced into their crops, giving these companies a certain level of power. Over the past two decades, the U.S. has approved 140 genetically modified crops, while the EU has approved fewer than 40. Because the potential risks of genetically modified foods are not yet known, the EU’s regulations err on the side of caution and therefore all GM foods are regulated. Before approval, the EU requires both proof of the safety of a genetically modified crop and proper labeling of such products, unlike the U.S.

Another asset that the Europeans typically distrust biotechnology, unlike Americans who have fully embraced it. When the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) was being created, there was fear in Europe that this free-trade zone would introduce American agriculture into Europe and degrade its high food standards. In particular, the Europeans rebelled against America’s use of chlorine washing of chicken, and thanks to their efforts, today Europe refuses to accept American poultry that has been treated with chlorine, in addition to banning American meats that have been treated with pharmaceutical growth enhancers.

As consumers, we are reminded by our distant European neighbors that speaking out against harmful practices can make a difference. We have witnessed this with the push to label foods as GMO-free and the increase in the organic industry here in the U.S., both of which are responses to our voiced concerns. By continuing to speak out against disconcerting practices and by taking our money elsewhere, the giant agricultural companies will be forced to listen. Europeans have shown us that there is nothing wrong with questioning biotechnology, and we should look to their regulations if, we too, want to implement high standards to consume safe foods.

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