BRUSSELS, Belgium - A senior U.S. official complained about European Union barriers to biotechnology products on the first day the new European Commission formally took office.
In an outspoken attack on EU timidity, David Aaron, U.S. undersecretary of Commerce, on a visit to Brussels last week urged the EU to "banish ignorance and anxiety."
His attack went to the heart of the divergences that underlie the spectacular confrontations between the U.S. and the EU in recent months on biotechnology, as the EU has increasingly resisted the launch of new products in response to widespread consumer fears, particularly about genetically modified food. Aaron said lack of leadership by EU politicians was allowing public prejudice to effectively close down the EU market for biotechnology products.
"Only a few U.S. biotech products have been approved by the EU, and none since early 1998," Aaron said. "An indefinite moratorium has been created through the failure of the European Union to implement its new approval process."
He ridiculed EU fears and the EU attachment to what it calls the "precautionary principle" to justify its reticence. "The EU and member-state governments are apparently fearful of going against public opposition, and yet are unable to find grounds for outright rejection of such products."
Aaron repeated the basic U.S. contention that biotechnology products present no new health risks. "Ten years of U.S. experience with biotech products have shown us that biotech foods developed and in use in the U.S. present no food safety risks beyond those of their 'natural' counterparts: not one sneeze, not one cough, not one rash. There is simply no credible evidence to the contrary. "
But biotech products are held in limbo in the EU, he said, and "too few leaders are making an effort to dispel the reservoir of public ignorance through education on the subject." On the contrary, Aaron said, "some public figures are willfully adding confusion instead of clarification, and the luddites are carrying the day. ... Can it be true that Europe will remove itself from participation in a technology that will have as profound an effect on the next century as electricity has had on this one?"
Aaron had talks with the commission's deputy secretary general, Bernard Zepter, and with Martin Power, a senior adviser to the new European commissioner for Health and Consumer Protection, David Byrne (who was being sworn in, along with his colleagues, at a ceremony in Luxembourg). Aaron told them it was his hope that the new European Commission "will turn a fresh eye to this problem."
Aaron blamed "a combination of negative factors" for the EU freeze. "First, there is no functioning approval process in the EU," he said. "Second, the current labeling regulations covering biotech don't work. And third, too few leaders are making an effort to dispel the reservoir of public ignorance through education on the subject.
"Disqualifying grounds do not exist," insisted Aaron, tackling the EU reticence head-on. He accused the EU of having no real policy except "to resort to a variety of bureaucratic ploys and political maneuvers to delay and deny approvals. France, for example, has approved biotech products, sponsored applications for EU approval, and then prevented these same products from being released in the rest of the EU. In the UK, one U.S. corn product favorably reviewed by scientists is stalled in a newly required inter-ministerial review process."
Aaron called the EU's biotech approval directive "historically non-transparent and unpredictable," and said the labeling issue in Europe is "confused," which has led to "costly uncertainty among U.S. exporters who do not have one unified continent-wide standard for labeling."
"Above all," he said, "Europe must base its policy, judgments and procedures on sound science. In the absence of scientific evidence many are invoking the precautionary principle to justify inaction. Precaution has an important role in our extensive programs of testing and evaluation but it cannot be the alpha and omega of public policy and human behavior. Otherwise we would never get out of bed in the morning."