How much are we prepared to pay for food safety?
Wb spoke this week to Professor Laurian Unnevehr as she prepared to return to the US. The economics professor from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign has been in Wageningen for three months. She was invited here by Professor Ruud Huirne of the Farm Management Group to organise a symposium on the economic aspects of food safety, which took place last week.
"I have no idea why they chose me," says Unnevehr, "But I was happy to do it, as I have been examining the food safety policy of the European Union." European policy makers emphasise the growing gap between Europe and the United States on the issue of food safety. Unnevehr sees it differently. She believes that the focus on the transatlantic differences concerning hormones in meat and genetic modification mask the far greater similarities between the US and the EU.
"The same discussions take place in the US as those here," she states. "Both business and government are concerned about what can be done on issues such as traceability in much the same way as in Europe. And there is also the same lack of clarity about which responsibilities lie with business and which with the government. The only important difference that I see is in the discussion on GM products."
It is not the fact that there is so much discussion about GM products in Europe that surprises Unnevehr. Rather, it is the way in which the discussion is conducted that has caught her attention. "I am amazed by the polarisation. Of course Americans differ in their opinions on the pros and cons of genetic modification, just as they do on the subject of health care for instance. But the doggedness with which some people in Europe cling to their opinions on GM products is not something you see in the US."
While Americans are perhaps more tolerant of GM products, they are more concerned about contaminated food. Pathogens such as the E. coli strain O157H7 are a hot news item in the US, and suspicious cases of food poisoning frequently make it to the national media. "I myself think that we are under-investing in food safety. If you look at the medical costs arising from unsafe food, at the number of working days lost and the high life- and disability insurance payouts, these amount somewhere between 17 and 27 billion dollars each year in the US. The investments needed to reduce these figures amount to a fraction of that amount."
Unnevehr counters this with the consideration that there is a risk of doing too much. "That is the dilemma in the BSE crisis. The chance of consumers becoming ill as a result of BSE infected cattle is very small, and the investments needed to ensure that consumers do not encounter BSE meat on the dinner table are considerable. But at what point does investment become to high?"
Photo Guy Ackermans