Taking Caution on Precaution
Chris Clayton DTN Ag Policy Editor
Wed Apr 2, 2014 10:58 AM CDT
(Page 1 of 2)

OMAHA (DTN) -- Advocates for using science to advance food production are pounding away at increasing disruption of innovation in livestock and meat industries because of the precautionary principle.

FDA completed analysis on AquaAdvantage salmon nearly three years ago and found it identical to a traditional salmon, yet the agency will not say if it is ready to deregulate the fish. (Photo courtesy of AquaBounty)

The National Institute for Animal Agriculture is holding its annual meeting this week in downtown Omaha with speeches and panel discussions centered on use of the precautionary principle in the U.S. and the lack of innovation already caused by the regulatory philosophy, particularly in Europe.

NIAA is made up of state vets and companies involved in livestock sciences, as well as affiliated livestock trade associations.

The precautionary principle states a new product must not introduce a new threat to public health or the environment. The principle turns over innovation to democratic decision-making. That can give credibility or legitimacy to people who have no particular expertise in an area, but nonetheless help determine the risk. The precautionary principle views new technologies as unsafe until proven safe. Regulators and government more heavily focus on risks rather than benefits.

Embodied in the regulatory stances taken by Europe, the precautionary principle does not consider the risk of inaction. There also is no single definition of the precautionary principle, said keynote speaker Mark Walton, chief marketing officer for the company Recombinetics, a firm that uses genomic engineering to develop animals for medical and food industries.

"That actually is one of the problems with the precautionary principle because that, like beauty, is often in the eye of the beholder," Walton said. He added that advocates of a new technology are at an automatic disadvantage. "We cannot literally ever prove something is 100% safe."

Walton spent a large portion of his career working for companies focused on studying livestock genes or cloning animals. He noted a growing tendency by regulators to reject science out of fear without any basis for the decisions.

Most regulatory systems embody some precautionary approach. The Food and Drug Administration examines and provides a risk analysis before making a decision on the level of appropriate risk in approving a food product or process.

Walton pointed to a couple of key areas in which the precautionary principle has limited U.S. agriculture, particularly in Europe.

The ban on hormone-treated beef by EU countries began in the 1980s and has ensured U.S. beef exports to Europe remain relatively small. The EU-27 imported $249.2 million of U.S. beef last year compared to $1.18 billion in U.S. beef shipped to Japan. Canada imported $1.14 billion of U.S. beef and China imported $807 million. U.S. beef going to Europe requires a special certification.

Poultry also faces a near ban in Europe because of antimicrobial washes used by U.S. packers since 1997. U.S. poultry meat remains effectively shut out of Europe and groups in the EU continue to raise health concerns over the washes.

Walton said European challenges to U.S. livestock and poultry production are used as non-tariff trade barriers to protect their domestic markets and producers.

Dermot Hayes, an economist at Iowa State University, said he believes the precautionary principle will lead to an eventual breakdown of trade talks between the U.S. and European Union in the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership. He cited food scares over the past 50 years in Europe -- dioxin contamination in eggs and the bovine spongiform encephalopathy outbreak -- that have made the EU rely even more heavily on the precautionary principle. Yet, Hayes noted that bans on products such as ractopamine translate into lost production value for European hog producers.

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