At an IFT conference on global acceptance and sustainability of genetically modified food yesterday, Francis Smith from the Competitive Enterprise Institute in Washington DC gave an interesting American perspective of EU regulations governing GM food.
"It is clear that consumers in the EU are concerned a lot about food, especially over topics that attract a lot of media coverage," she said.
"The percentage of people who claimed to be 'worried' is between 53 to 63 per cent. GM comes in at about the middle, around 58 per cent."
Breaking these recent Eurobarometer figures down by country, Smith found that Austrians are the biggest worriers. About seven out of ten claim to be 'worried' about GM products.
And a quarter of all EU consumers claim to be 'very worried'.
"When this data was analysed further, we also found that gender was a factor. Four out of ten European women said that they were 'very worried' about food, compared to 29 per cent of men.
"Considering that women make most of the household purchasing decisions, this is a very important group."
Fundamentally, Smith said that these figures showed there was an underlying fear of new technology, largely absent in the US . Americans, she said, tended to look at the benefits. In comparison to Europeans, US consumers tended to express less fear and less distrust.
The EU is therefore different. Its precautionary principle, which rules that regulators should err on the side of caution, assumes that a prevention strategy is always appropriate.
A recent European Commission (EC) communique reads: 'decision-makers have to take into account fears generated by these perceptions and put in place preventative measures'.
"There is little theoretical basis for this approach," argued Smith. "We're talking about regulations addressing perceptions and fears. Also, this is an approach that can never be satisfied - there'll always be someone who can think of yet one more theoretical risk."
Smith also said that there have been some alarming developments within the EU, taking decision makers further into the realms of the hypothetical. "This all increases the perceptions of risk when there is little basis for this, and could lead to mass hysteria. Fears are common, and can be dangerous."
Of course, there are reasons why the EU has more stringent regulations than the US . The outbreak of mad cow disease triggered Europe-wide concern about the safety of the food supply chain in the 1990s, and Europe is by nature a more regulated environment than the States.
But Smith's point is that overly stringent regulations, based on public perceptions of danger rather than scientific evidence, could result in the unnecessary rejection of significant new products. She argues that the EU is pandering to unsubstantiated fears.
"With the global population doubling in the next couple of decades, we need biotechnology," she said. "We need to make strong consumer value arguments, about the fact that GM technology can lead to reduced allergen food. People just don't know about the vast improvements that have been made."
Convincing both consumers and food makers operating in Europe that GM technology is both completely safe and profitable is likely to continue to prove tricky, however. Later this week, FoodNavigator will report on recent global regulatory initiatives to harmonise GM regulations.