Taking Caution on Precaution

Technology Advocates Cite Challenges They Face Under Precautionary Principle

Chris Clayton
By  Chris Clayton , DTN Ag Policy Editor
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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)

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.

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.

Essentially, the EU position on biotechnology translates into feeding more expensive grain such as corn to less productive animals such as hogs or dairy cows. That stance also influences other countries trading with Europe, notably in Africa. "For me, the precautionary principle is fundamentally unsound. It causes hunger and lack of security," Hayes said.

Ractopamine also is a problem in the Asian market. Taiwan just this week informed the U.S. it would ban the product for any pork imports.

In the U.S., Walton noted the battle to get genetically-engineered Atlantic salmon approved by the FDA is being delayed by activists demanding FDA reject commercial marketing of the fish despite no evidence of a health or safety risk. The fish, developed by AquaBounty Technologies, grows faster and larger than natural salmon and can be raised on inland fish farms. Walton said the fish would provide jobs and high-quality protein that would reduce the pressure on commercial fishing of salmon. But FDA will not say if the agency is ready to deregulate the fish. "This is one of the most egregious examples of precautionary principle at play in the United States today," Walton said.

Ronald Stotish, president and CEO of AquaBounty Technologies, said in an interview that FDA does not tell petitioners when it will make a final decision about a product's safety or approval. FDA completed the analysis on the AquaAdvantage salmon nearly three years ago and found the fish is identical to a traditional salmon. An environmental assessment also found no adverse effects on the environment. Yet precaution has created paralysis in getting a decision on the salmon.

"Unless there is going to be a major departure from science-based regulation, we believe and hope an approval will eventually come," Stotish said. "The problem for us is: When will that be? We have been very patient and we have waited a long time."

The U.S. currently imports $2 billion in Atlantic salmon every year, roughly 270,000 tons of fish. That's the potential market Stotish sees for the AquaAdvantage salmon. "We, of course, would not be able to fill that whole market in one swoop, but that's what we see the market as," Stotish said. "We should be growing it here just like we grow our own hogs, our own beef and own poultry."

While Europe and the U.S. may be slowing down on genetic research, Walton said Brazil is showing early signs of wanting to help aid genetic and biotechnological work on livestock. He is working with others on a livestock biotechnology forum later this year in Brazil.

Chris Clayton can be reached at chris.clayton@dtn.com

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Chris Clayton