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Food Labeling: Lessons Learned     Print Email
Jane Earley

Now that the United States has begun to experience the kinds of food scares that rocked Europe several years ago, more American consumers are starting to worry about the efficacy of the food-safety system that is supposed to protect them. Some people fear negligent or criminal adulteration of imported food products such as pet food from China; others worry about problems at home, citing the example of an American company that recently had to recall batches of its brand of peanut butter after they were tied to salmonella outbreaks that sickened more than 400 people in 44 U.S. states. Fears and doubts are even growing among some regulators.

In these circumstances, could Europe’s food-safety solutions offer some useful approaches for the United States?

 

Certainly, the U.S. system seems to need fixing. Former Food and Drug Administration (FDA) Associate Commissioner William Hubbard was quoted in a recent New York Times article saying that “the public thinks the food supply is much more protected than it is;” former Health and Human Services (HHS) Secretary Tommy Thompson’s concerns about threats to the food supply are something that he says he worries about “every single night.” A food marketing-institute survey recently reported survey results showing that the number of consumers “completely” or “somewhat confident” in the safety of supermarket food declined from 82 percent in 2006 to – in a single year – 66 percent, the lowest point since 1989. That was the year when the issues of pesticides in apples and contaminated grapes were widely reported. Aggravating the uncertainties is the fact, tucked into the trade-deficit figures since 2005, that the United States has become a net food-importer for the first time in its history.

 

The problems are both with private providers and public regulators. In the wake of last year’s U.S. scare about E. coli-contaminated spinach from California and now in the context of the Chinese episodes (involving pet food, melamine, monkfish and toxic toothpaste), FDA’s performance and resources have been widely criticized. More funding for food-safety inspection programs by FDA has been requested in legislative proposals that have wide political support. Some food-producers, particularly those involved with fresh-cut produce, have requested mandatory federal regulations. Amidst these criticisms, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) has added food safety to its “high risk” program areas. The Government Accountability Office defines these as activities that need increased visibility, urgent attention and transformation to serve the needs of the public.

Genetically-modified foods are not at the moment in the spotlight, although the U.S. export system is leaky, and there are widespread feelings that U.S. shipments with genetic modifications continue to evade the scrutiny of regulators and arrive unapproved in destination countries.

One proposal to improve the U.S. approach to food safety is to give the FDA authority for mandatory product recalls – a longstanding issue in Congress. Another effective reform would be to consolidate the food-safety oversight into one agency (rather than the current twelve). A further reform would require companies exporting to the United States to obtain certification demonstrating that their products meet standards for food safety and consumer protection. This would presumably be additional to the registration now required of importers for reasons of food security.

FDA has responded to some of these developments. An Assistant FDA Commissioner for Food Protection has been appointed to develop a comprehensive strategy for protecting the safety of both domestically-produced and imported food, and to enhance FDA’s authority to intervene effectively and respond to food adulteration instances. FDA has also committed to implement a pilot data-mining program to identify and inspect up to 10 importers who bring in large quantities of high-risk foods into the U.S. and to conduct 5600 domestic and 100 foreign inspections of high risk firms. There has also been extensive consultation with Chinese authorities on the issues of food safety raised by adulterated products for animal and human consumption, including on mandatory registration of Chinese firms that intend to export food and feed products to the U.S.

Other approaches to food safety are also gaining attention. Country-of-origin labeling, now mandatory for fish and about to be required for meat and produce, continues to be a hot topic in the trade press and in legislative debate. Originally intended to influence consumers to favor domestic production, country of origin labeling (COOL) has also become a way for some consumers to identify products that may pose a food safety risk or consume large amounts of energy in transport.

Labels showing “food miles” for energy-conservation purposes are not under active official consideration at this time. But the concept has received much attention in the press and in the organic context. In fact, farmers markets have long been a cornerstone of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s efforts to encourage direct marketing to urban populations. These have grown in number by 18 percent since 2004. Additionally, new initiatives seek to link producers and restaurants at a local level. Recent food literature also highlights the desirability of sourcing local produce – although it is obviously foolish to imagine that modern communities can depend entirely on locally produced food.

In the private sector, as consumers nationwide start to focus on sourcing more of their food locally, parts of the food industry are starting to discuss energy use as a factor in distribution. Many corporate groups would like to see increased use of certification and labeling for other purposes (sustainability), accompanied by changes in food utilization (local purchasing) and reduced carbon output (food miles). Both companies and non-government organizations have become active on these and a related constellation of branding issues revolving around food origins. Food companies are increasingly concerned to deliver to consumers not just safe foods but foods that also reflect the company’s activism in responding to values cherished by consumers, such as environmental impact. Coca-Cola has committed to overhaul how it uses water throughout its operations and bottling franchises in a drive for greater environmental sustainability. Wal-Mart is engaged in an effort to make itself a driving force promoting sustainable production globally. Most notably, organic sales have jumped considerably in the wake of the food scares, and other labels are gaining currency. Consumers often feel that organic labels provide a measure of safety, although they would be hard pressed to describe why that is the case in any context other than possibly lower pesticide residues.

So how does Europe stack up in comparison on these issues? Looking at the European response to the “mad cow disease” crisis and other food-safety scares, it sometimes seems legitimate to ask whether Europe has solved its food-safety problems or whether it is creating them. Certainly, the European Food Safety Agency (EFSA) – created by the European Parliament in 2002 – has begun to establish itself as a firm foundation of technical expertise and confidence in the eyes of EU food consumers. Since its creation, it has engaged in work on maximum residue levels of pesticides, plant pest risk analysis, nutrition and health claims. Its recent agenda has included work on nanotechnology and marine biotoxins.

The agency is engaged in an extensive study of the effects and use of irradiation to protect food from decay. Europe has lagged in use of this technique of controlled radiation (only 10 member states have approved facilities to process irradiated foods), but it is embarking on intensive work on nutrition and health claims for the procedure. EFSA has also started outreach to civil society groups and the scientific community, making the agency a paragon of transparency compared to previous food-safety programs in Europe.

However effective EFSA has been in its assigned role as scientific advisor to the Commission, the fact remains that it is neither part of the Commission nor answerable to it. And its views do not have to be taken up in member state regulation. Take this example of the limits on its authority: despite EFSA statements, poor consumer opinion of genetically-modified food has continued to block member-state approval and retail use of most products containing or made with genetically-modified organisms (GMO). EFSA has made only limited progress in other contentious areas.

As part of the Commission’s efforts on labeling, it is also undertaking to quantify the costs to the food industry of revising the general regime on food-labeling and nutritional-labeling. And, while tackling issues with China on food-safety problems, the Commission has again found its efforts focused largely on GM issues.

So far, there has been more heat than light generated by this transatlantic issue. Americans often are quick to lecture European regulators about their reluctance to approve genetically-modified (GM) foods. Many Americans who have eaten foods with GM content for years with no apparent ill effects are somewhat bemused by the hostility that they engender in Europe. But European consumers continue to resist. Critics wonder: Are European consumers averse to science-based food regulation? That is unclear.

A test may come with the new European “regulation on organics” that allows a “tolerance” of 0.9 percent for genetically-modified content accidentally introduced into organic foods. The organics regulation follows on a widely debated earlier regulation on GM-labeling in Europe. This decree requires that all food labels must report it when a food contains more than miniscule amounts of genetically modified material. But miniscule amounts can be expected in many agricultural crops: genetically modified plants now are planted on many farms and crops planted near these crops can be expected to have them. These tiny amounts, not enough to pose a problem, are called a “tolerance.” Should organic foods be treated differently? European regulators believe they should not. So the issue is whether consumers will be tolerant of the tolerance.

It is a truly vexed issue. For example, the Commission has recently informed European consumers that there is no way to avoid genetically-modified content even in the organic area, the last refuge from the tide of genetically-modified agricultural products that threatens to overrun the global food supply. Although the organic label was generally welcomed, the Commission’s decision to include a GM-content threshold in the organic foods regulation sparked fervent debate and has been met with hostility from much of the environmental community.

Environmental and consumer groups decry the newly-tolerated threshold of GM content in organic food, despite the Commission’s declaration that an attempt to reach “zero tolerance” is simply not realistic. Many consumers, who turned to organic foods because of their connoted health benefits, are disenchanted by the tolerance of any GM content, because of the fears – at least some of which seem to be more myths than science-based facts – surrounding GMO’s unhealthiness. The organic farming community is also loath to be required to tolerate genetically-modified elements, seen as contradictory to the organic motto “pure and free from.”

Moreover, there are suspicions, reflected in news articles, that this tolerance is the "thin end of a wedge which will allow the creeping contamination of organic food across Europe" with higher and higher tolerated levels of GMO in food. It is an understatement to say that anti-GM activists are concerned. But this debate over the "creeping contamination" of GMOs into European organic food seems premature. In fact, the European Parliament in April confirmed that higher tolerance levels were out of the question. Still, it remains to be seen whether European consumers will prove more open-minded about questions involving GMOs in the light of opinions and findings from EFSA and other agencies.

Meanwhile, European consumers have enjoyed a retail sector which has been extremely active in promoting values cherished by their clientele, such as food safety and environmental protection. For example, Eurepgap, a retail-buying consortium certifying a broad spectrum of agricultural produce, places significant importance on health and safety requirements, laying out specific rules for farmers to follow for certification. Another example can be seen in Tesco’s – a UK-based global grocery chain – commitment to carbon neutrality and its “food miles” label for air-freighted produce. European consumers have a choice when it comes to shopping in accordance with their values.

For the moment, it is difficult to find useful U.S.-EU comparisons – at least in the form of “best practice” rules – between food safety systems and regulatory responses to consumer pressure on opposite sides of the Atlantic. This is true in both the public and the private sector. With strengths and weaknesses on both sides, there is a clear agreement on a least a central theme: the need for effectiveness, transparency and responsiveness to consumers. An important step in implementing this approach involves helping consumers define their real needs.

Jane Earley is an attorney who consults in the international trade, environment, food and fishery sectors. She is currently affiliated with the World Wildlife Fund.

 

This article was published in European Affairs: Volume number 8, Issue number 2-3 in the Summer/Fall of 2007.