Have you ever heard someone say that there can’t be anything truly harmful in food because if the government allows it, it must be okay? Can you rely on that to keep your family healthy and safe when the U.S. and Europe have such different standards for what’s safe to consume?
Over the past decade, the European Union has shown itself to be more conservative than the U.S. in several regards, including the labeling and banning of food additives and in its restrictions on genetic modification of crops. A major difference is that Europe’s government insists on conducting its own tests, rather than relying, as our FDA primarily does, on evidence supplied by the food manufacturers themselves. To many, this is like putting the mouse in charge of the cheese.
“The EU prioritizes consumer health and consumers’ right to know what’s in their food,” said Michael Hansen, Ph.D., in a November 2009 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine. Hansen is a senior scientist with the Consumer’s Union, a nonprofit independent advocacy group for product safety. He says the big picture is that the U.S. is driven by mass-producing inexpensive food, while Europe’s stance reflects a reverence for local food and old-fashioned farming.
The Consumers Union also points out that polls show that U.S. and European consumers want the same things—clear labeling and a strict system of safety testing before products are put on the market.
Below are some of the big areas of food production that are more regulated in Europe than here:
In Europe, foods containing dyes must carry this label: “May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
This is a hot topic here right now because the Center for Science in the Public Interest just asked the government to ban artificial food coloring. But on May 31, 2011, a government panel for the FDA this requirement. Research since the 1970s has linked colored dyes in food to behavioral problems in kids. In the U.S., three of the bad dyes are off the market. But there are eight more that the CPSI, a Washington, D.C., based watchdog group, has been asking the FDA to ban since 2004, when an analysis plus two other studies determined the dyes increase hyperactivity and attention deficits in some children.
Genetically modified food ingredients make up only .9 percent of all food in the EU and, unlike here, the packaging must carry a label.
In the U.S., an estimated 70 percent of processed foods—from chips to muffins to tomato sauce—contain genetically modified soy, corn or canola. There are many concerns that GMO food can have seriously damaging effects all the way down the food chain with the spread of organisms that are resistant to things like antibiotics and herbicide. One big objection is that the genes themselves are not confined to the original, patented plant but can be spread by wind or pollen to other varieties of the same crop—and even to wild relatives. Canada is already having tremendous problems with genetically engineered canola, which has not only spread its herbicide-resistant trait to other canola, but is now affecting its many wild relatives, creating what are being termed "super weeds."
In addition, Hansen says, “There are still serious questions about health consequences that can arise when you genetically engineer an organism, then eat it.” The CU is concerned that none of these crops are required to go through a mandatory safety assessment before going on the market and that few studies have been conducted about the risks to our health.
Antibiotics in Livestock Feed
The EU has banned the practice of giving food and water laced with antibiotics to healthy livestock since 1998. Up to 70 percent of all U.S. livestock spend their whole life on the drug in this manner. But the practice can cause a strain of drug-resistant, food-borne illnesses in our meats. If you want to avoid them, look for the words “no antibiotics added” on labels, or buy organically certified meats and poultry.
Bovine Growth Hormone
This drug, known as rBGH for short, is not allowed in Europe. In contrast, U.S. citizens struggle to get laws that allow hormone-free labeling so that consumers have a choice. The injections of rBGH, given to most dairy cows to increase productivity, has been repeatedly linked to increases in breast and colon cancers.
The bottom line is, if any of these practices concerns you, look closely at the labels of the food you are buying. While manufacturers are often not required to warn you, foods without these additives will usually tell you on the packaging. For those not willing to take the risks associated here, shopping for food may be a more involved, costly process than if they lived abroad.