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Rod Leonard / CNI/Minnesota Food safety is a century old trade issue between the United State and Europe, but the Clinton administration has ignored the lesson that the consumer is always right, and today history is repeating itself. In the early 1880s, for example, Europe was buying all the beef and pork the U.S. could send. Before the decade was out, however, so much of the meat was contaminated that Europeans began to view U.S. beef and pork as a health risk. Restrictions on U.S. meat were imposed, and the European market declined. More than a century later, the U.S. food industry enjoys large export markets in Europe, but is in danger of blowing the opportunity again. Three years ago, for example, exporters began shipping genetically modified (GM) farm commodities and processed foods containing GM ingredients to Europe, with the fervid blessings of the Clinton administration. But now GM imports are banned, and corn and soybean sales in Europe have dropped sharply. In addition, labeling of U.S. foods that contain GM ingredients is looming, with disastrous loss of sales. The situation today is somewhat more complex than a century ago, but the essential facts are similar. The Clinton administration gambled that the same strategy which lulled a docile American public on the health risks of genetically modified foods could work with the European consumer. If concerns over unknown and uncertain health risks could safely be bottled, the Administration's trade strategy of pushing American biotechnology interests in global markets where little competition existed could be put into high gear. Monsanto, Dupont and other U.S. companies have invested billions in research to develop genetically modified corn and soybeans, and the companies dreams of controlling seed production not only for U.S. farmers but also for growers in Europe, South America and Asia. The opportunity beckoned to extract unparalleled riches by charging premiums for seeds with modified genes. A century earlier the U.S. government saw meat as a rich source of foreign exchange, and from the early 1880s to the end of the decade the volume of meat exports grew rapidly. Consumers in the U.S. were docile, and would not become outraged by the health risk to which they were being exposed for another 26 years. For the Europeans, however, the story was different. They saw first hand the end product in the 1880s of a process that was unchanged when Upton Sinclair described Chicago's packinghouses in his book, "The Jungle," in 1905: "... in the room where the men prepare beef for canning, and the beef had lain in vats full of chemicals, and men with great forks speared it out and dumped it into trucks, to be taken to the cooking room. When they had speared out all they could reach, they emptied the vat on the floor and then with shovels scraped up the balance and dumped it into the truck. The floor was filthy, and the pickle (was mopped) into a hole connected with a sink where it was caught and used over again forever; and if that were not enough, there was a trap in the pipe where all the scraps of meat and odds and ends of refuse were caught. And every few days it was shovel(ed) into one of the trucks with the rest of the meat." Restrictions on meat exports to Europe finally caught the attention of J. M. Rusk, Secretary of Agriculture. In his 1890 report to Congress. Rusk said "the absence of inspection on this side provoked an argument (with) foreign governments to which we were really not prepared to reply. It was that no inspection being held by ourselves, while a rigid inspection was conducted by them, they were in position to know better than we ourselves the actual condition of these products." Rusk held out some hope that inspection of processed meat products would solve the problem, but noted Europeans also were raising questions about the health of animals before slaughter, and said "there is a tendency to make (restrictions) more stringent and irksome." He said a law to inspect "animals and meat at slaughter ... is urgently needed and should be enacted without delay." Inspection, however, applied to beef and pork for export markets only. In 1905 the publication of "The Jungle" demonstrated conclusively for the Europeans that U.S. inspection for export was a farce. Over the following two weeks foreign demand for U.S. meat fell 5 to 30 percent, threatening U.S. cattle prices and producer income, the House Agriculture Committee reported. Congress passed the Wholesome Meat Act in 1907, extending to American citizens the shield of federal inspection of beef and pork, an act which also eased European concern over the safety of American food. In effect, European reluctance to take the assurances of the U.S. government that American citizens were satisfied with the safety of food processed by the U.S. food industry saved millions of Americans from illness and premature death. Eventually aroused from their complacency, consumers demanded food inspection from Congress and held the federal government responsible for food safety. The same scenario is being repeated today, unfortunately. The Clinton administration is blaming consumer opposition to genetically modified foods on European governments, arguing that U.S. consumers are complacently scarfing novel foods. U.S. government officials and company scientists have assured European officials that genetically modified ingredients are safe, but European consumers are not buying the sales pitch. Even more troubling, evidence is emerging that the Clinton administration is targeting European officials who resist the U.S. trade pitch. The Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) acknowledged last week spying on European government officials, specifically Michael Meacher, British environmental minister. Meacher recently ordered the review of various government advisory committees to reduce the number of members with ties to the biotechnology industry. Consumer reluctance to trust government assurances on food safety is rooted in bitter experience. A decade ago, after repeated reassurances that a disease that rotted the brains of cattle, i.e., mad cows disease, could not infect humans, the British government reluctantly admitted it had known for some time the illness was transmissible when people consumed beef from infected cattle. More than 30 persons have died thus far, and the eventual toll is expected to mount over the next generation. Nearly the same scenario was replayed last month when the Belgium government withheld information that meat, poultry and dairy products had been contaminated with dioxin, a potent carcinogen. Mad cows disease destroyed public confidence in government and the scientific establishment for its predictable behavior in defending economic interests of industry at the expense of human health. If the Europeans looked far enough at the American government, the same fault lines is evident. Monsanto, the biotechnology company promoting GM foods, also markets NutraSweet, a sugar substitute a.k.a. aspartame, with the approval of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). The agency admits the substance is a neurotoxin which contains an amino acid that causes mental retardation in some children. FDA says the product is safe, except for those individuals it harms, and allows the product to be marketed, but with a warning label. In another instance, Sara Lee, a major food company, sold processed meat products contaminated with Listeria bacteria which killed 15 people, causing six miscarriages and widespread illnesses. The company immediately created a vice president for food safety, hiring Ann Marie McDonald, a top scientist in the Food Safety and Inspection Service, the food inspection agency of the Department of Agriculture. The step underscores the chummy relationship between industry and the federal regulators who are responsible for protecting consumer health but prefer to shield industry from criticism. McDonald will have ready access to top USDA officials, and can easily circumvent USDA inspection staff on disputes over cleanup issues. Revolving door corruption, failure of leadership in inspection programs and policies that introduce risk are all symptoms of a deeper problem in food safety, i.e., reliance on an unsound system which does not make full use of science to manage risks to health. The contribution of science to current regulatory policy is limited by two conditions. One is the policy framework, a political structure designed to license products and to increase the level of risk. And, the other is the nature of process in which science is employed. In the case of the former, two regulatory conventions illustrate the corrupting power of politics over science. In determining when regulatory steps will be taken to protect citizens, the federal government generally is guided by the definition of acceptable risk adopted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), i.e., one additional death per million population for each hazardous substance used as a food additive. No scientific basis exists for this rule, a political concept wrapped in the rhetoric of science. In determining whether a genetically modified substance is safe to eat, the U.S. government invented another regulatory concept, i.e., a GM product is safe if it is "substantially equivalent" to a conventional counterpart. The British Medical Association (BMA) dismissed the claim as scientific rubbish, noting the rule is intended to evade the biological fact that "gene interaction of unexpected kind is a real possibility." The BMA statement supports the visceral rejection by European citizens of GM foods, and illustrates the underlying flaw in U.S. risk management policy. It is a system based on linear analysis, i.e., within political restraints, the examination of all available data will produce coherent, reliable explanations of conditions and situations. Health and safety, however, are non-linear systems, i.e., they exhibit properties not fully explained by an understanding of their component parts. As the BMA said in its criticism of GM foods, adverse effects of the introduction of genetic modifications are irreversible, and more data on possible toxicity is critically needed. European rejection of U.S. claims that GM foods are safe is based on the loss of public confidence in governments and regulatory policies. In a global market, the loss of public confidence in one region destroys confidence in all regions, i.e., not only in Europe but also in the U.S. Awareness of this condition and its implications has not yet sunk into the Clinton administration and the international agencies responsible for food safety. President Clinton, after being rudely criticized last month on GM foods by French President Jacques Chirac, asked the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) to conduct a one-year study. Codex Alimentarius, the global body on food standards, last week proposed a four-year study of the same issue, and Secretary of Agriculture Glickman created a new advisory committee on GM foods. Studies and reports are not going to restore public confidence, however. Confidence in Europe and the US in American meat a century ago began to improve when a new inspection system was created. Restoring confidence in U.S. foods will begin only when the U.S. adopts a system capable of managing risks that are uncertain, often unknown and unpredictable. It is worth noting that the BMA proposes a system based on the precautionary principle, once again demonstrating that the Europeans may yet save America's bacon.


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