What comes to mind when you think about European food? Maybe fantastic Italian pasta, French quiche, Spanish tapas or German bratwurst? As someone who lived in Europe for years, I have indelible memories of wandering through farmers’ markets, seeing, smelling and tasting amazing fruits, vegetables, meats, cheeses, local dishes - and of course incredible bread hot from the oven. The residents of my Belgian neighborhood did much of their shopping at these local markets, going several times weekly and greeting vendors by name. Most of the offerings at these markets are organic, grown by local farmers using traditional techniques, without additives, preservatives, or artificial ingredients. The result is food of phenomenal taste and quality, reflective of European values and treasured by European consumers.
Do any of us have the same experiences or feelings regarding food in the United States? Don’t get me wrong - things clearly have improved here. Returning from overseas I see far more organic produce and more antibiotic and hormone-free animal products than I did ten years ago. Hard-working U.S. small farmers are valued, and farmers’ markets, growing in number, generally carry healthy, quality products. Nevertheless, there remains an enormous difference between the quality of European food and the food consumed by most Americans.
The value Europeans place on small-scale local farming and high-quality, fresh food stems from centuries of tradition, and is linked to Europeans’ commitment to protecting human health and the environment. These views drive strong EU food safety policies.
In 2002, the European Union adopted a “General Food Law” which ensures a high level of protection of human life, mandated that member countries pursue an integrated approach to food safety, and established the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). EFSA is known for stringent oversight of food safety and quality, and provides independent scientific advice to EU policymakers on food and feed safety, nutrition, animal health and welfare, plant protection and plant health.
The EU also vigorously supports its top food products. The EU “geographical indications” (GI) system labels certain foods, wines and spirits as deriving from specific geographic regions -- French champagne, Italian parma ham (prosciutto) or Greek feta cheese, for example -- protecting those products from imitation, but also ensuring consumers know GI products are made with high-quality inputs and traditional methods. By contrast, in the U.S. the foods that get the heaviest marketing and the best product placement are generally foods with cheap and addictive ingredients that have documented bad health effects.
Another major difference is the EU’s strict approach to regulation of additives, preservatives, pesticides and other chemicals. The so-called “precautionary principle,” -- a fundamental element of EU environmental policy -- emphasizes caution and extensive review in considering approval of substances where safety information is uncertain or unknown. The EU consequently requires manufacturers to submit toxicity data to regulators before approving the use of new chemicals. In the United States, while the EPA requires safety assurances from industry for new chemicals under the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA), this does not cover food or pesticides. The FDA reviews food additives but under less stringent rules than the EU.
As a result, the EU has banned many food additives still used in the United States. Among these are potassium bromate, added to flour to make dough rise higher, and flavor enhancers and preservatives BHA and BHT, considered likely carcinogens; various food dyes linked to neurological problems, brain cancer, ADD and ADHD; bovine growth hormone (BGH), which causes health problems in cows; and others. Despite pressure from food safety groups and health organizations, U.S. regulators have yet to ban these substances.
Similarly, with regard to pesticides, EU regulations put the burden of proof on industry to demonstrate that products have no harmful effects on humans or animals. In the United States, however, 72 pesticides are allowed which are either banned or close to total phase-out in the EU; in 2016, 322 million pounds of these pesticides -- about one-quarter of all U.S. pesticide usage -- were used in U.S. agricultural production. Among these is glyphosate, the active ingredient in the pesticide Roundup, detectable in the majority of U.S. oat, wheat and soy products. Despite findings by the International Agency for Research on Cancer and academic studies that the chemical is a probable human carcinogen, the EPA disagrees, saying it finds no evidence glyphosate poses a cancer risk for humans. Though the EU has issued mixed opinions on glyphosate, it will require a phaseout by 2022. The EU has also banned the three most commonly used neonicotinoids, insecticides linked to colony collapse disorder, a malady which is killing bees. There is no such ban in the United States.
The quality and safety of U.S. food thus seem at risk -- so what are we to do? Well, there is good news! As they stay home more during the COVID crisis, Americans are rediscovering the value and joy of cooking good food. Spending time in the kitchen motivates us to think more about what we eat, and there are reports that since the crisis began, lots of Americans have been increasing their consumption of local food, vegan dishes, plant-based meat alternatives, fruits and vegetables, and in many ways eating better.
This unusual time has given us a precious opportunity to learn from the European experience to make better choices about food and to demand stronger policies at the federal and state levels. It is past time for U.S. regulators to adopt the European model - prioritizing sustainable farming, organic production, reduction or elimination of additives and pesticides, and protection of human and environmental health above all else. This is a chance we cannot afford to miss.
Photo credit: Nicole Pankalla, via Pixabay