"It is clear to me that both Europe and the US have very safe food chains," European Commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection David Byrne told delegates at the Food Safety Conference in Washington DC . "Sometimes we have our differences about how things should be done. Therefore it is crucially important to have greater common understandings of how our populations perceive risk."
He used the examples of GM foods and BSE to illustrate divergent public perceptions between Europe and the United States. Byrne pointed out that despite repeated scientific assurance about the safety of consuming genetically modified food products, European public attitudes towards GM foods have, to date, shown few if any signs of a thaw. "The science-based message simply fails to get across, or if it does, it is ignored," he said.
It seems that European citizens have, by and large, made up their minds. "Against this background the European policy response was essentially twofold. First we ensured that a rigorous risk assessment and approval procedure was put in place. Second, we introduced a requirement for the clear labelling of GM products. This will enable European consumers to exercise choice over whether or not they choose to buy GM products."
Byrne acknowledged that many Americans find the European public's attitude to GM difficult to understand. "However, our consumers demanded clear labelling and traceability as essential prerequisites," he said.
Byrne also told delegates that poor communication between the government, the media and the public after the UK's BSE outbreak in 1996 resulted in chaos, confusion and a meltdown in public confidence, which went far beyond the question of beef from just one country.
"The beef market collapsed. People felt they had been misled. When stringent measures were introduced to close off the possibility of potentially infected meat entering the food chain public confidence in beef gradually began to return.
"The clear lesson is that a transparent and consistent approach to risk communication is vital in gaining and maintaining public confidence and trust. It is interesting to compare the US public reaction to BSE with the European examples I have described. The benign reaction of the US beef market and the apparent lack of widespread public concern following the discovery of the US BSE case just before Christmas shows a stark contrast in public reactions to BSE in Europe.
"Are US consumers in general prepared to tolerate the risk of BSE? Contrast this with the ultra-precautionary approach of some of the main trading partners of the US. Here we have further evidence of global divergences in risk perception and consequent risk management measures." Byrne stressed the importance of traceability in both ensuring food safety and building up consumer confidence. "A key element in improving the safety of the food chain has been the strengthening of our traceability measures," he said. "Too often when food crises occurred it proved extremely difficult and expensive to trace and withdraw the offending products."
This system of tracing goods in the food chain is not new - many firms already have a system in place. The difference in the EU however is that from next year, all producers will, by law, have to have such a system in place. Byrne argues that to enable the EU of 25 Member States to have a fully integrated common market in food such a legislative system is essential.
"We have witnessed animal feed contamination where huge amounts of stocks had to be destroyed, and trade disrupted, because adequate traceability provisions were not in place. These types of occurrences provoke enormous concerns among consumers. Ensuring the confidence of EU consumers necessitates such systems to facilitate withdrawal of goods that can be traded through the 25 Member States."
Byrne notes that there is a degree of increasing convergence between the US and Europe, as a direct result of the threat of bioterrorism.
"US systems for the registration of exporters and the prior notification of imports are motivated by a desire to protect American citizens from the threat of deliberately contaminated food and food products. There is a marked similarity to European systems in this regard. It seems to me that in traceability there is greater convergence than one might otherwise think."