Hultsfred, Sweden 1998-11-06
Commissioner Franz Fischler
Dear Commissioner Franz Fischler,
Scientific controversy, food safety and consumer protection: a proposal for a Consumer Needs, Advantages & Benefit Evaluation.
While consumers in Europe may feel relatively safe when they purchase food, consumers are increasingly voicing strong concerns about certain farming methods. One case in point is genetically engineered crops, where we note that the European Union is implementing several precautionary measures, such as mandatory labelling, to make it possible for consumers to avoid GE foods.
We think a five year moratorium on genetically engineered crops would be in the best interest of consumers in Europe. However, we understand that bans or moratoriums are not popular these days, as such laws may be regarded as trade barriers under the current WTO agreement.
We therefore propose the introduction of a new principle that we call "Consumer Needs, Advantages & Benefit Evaluation" to be implemented as a guideline for food legislation.
An independent board, consisting of consumer advocates from all European consumer organisations, would be able to evaluate new products that create controversy in the market place.
CASE 1: Antibiotics in animal feed
We felt strongly that the Swedish ban against antibiotic substances in animal feed was a tremendous success when it came into force on January 1, 1986. This ban is now threatened. As a result of the Swedish membership in the European Union, efforts have been made to alert other member countries why this ban is essential if these substances are to remain potent when they are needed to combat serious human and animal illnesses.
If a Consumer Needs, Advantages & Benefit Evaluation would be used as a guideline for whether or not Sweden should be allowed to keep this ban, it is evident that there are no good reasons whatsoever why Swedish consumers should be exposed to food from animals which have received antibiotics in their feed.
Thus, the scientific controversy surrounding this ban should not be used as an argument for forcing Sweden to lift its ban. We believe a Consumer Needs, Advantage & Benefit Evaluation would confirm that the Swedish ban of antibiotics in animal feed is correct, and hopefully the ban would be extended elsewhere.
CASE 2: Antibiotic resistant marker genes in GE foods
There are now several novel foods which have been genetically engineered using the out-dated technique of inserting antibiotic resistant marker genes. These marker genes, consumers are told, have no effect on the food and will most likely not cause any health problems for humans or animals. In spite of intense lobbying from consumer organisations, the EU has not yet banned these controversial foods. This is a case where there are no needs, benefits or advantages for consumers and therefore, no matter how much experts assure us that such GE foods are safe, it will never eliminate the antagonism we feel against GE foods.
It is indeed not at all logical to refer to "Sound
Science" when scientists disagree. In fact, certain corporations use "Bad
Science" to create controversy on these important issues. As a result,
consumers tend not to trust industry scientists or governments. In controversial
cases, such as these two cases, it
For reasons exposed above, we propose that the principle of Consumer Needs, Advantages & Benefit Evaluation is given first priority and only thereafter the "Precautionary Principle" should be used. That means that consumers should not be exposed to risks if there are no needs, advantages or benefits. In this way, governments would be able to ban certain substances without being blamed for causing trade distorting effects, but pleading Consumer Protection aims.
It follows that if there are needs, advantages or benefits, even though there are risks to consumers, then the precautionary principle shall be implemented. In such cases, certain substances could be acceptable until new evidence of substantial harmful effects appear from studies. Then risks have to be weighed against the needs, advantages or benefits, a task for all European Consumer Organisations in collaboration. This procedure will solve the present difficult situation when different scientific studies, with opposite results, may cause a deadlock for governments, who often seem to be unable to rule against industry interests without concerns for consumers.
Copies to Commisioner Emma Bonino and DGXXIV