There seems to be some confusion among people I have interacted with recently as to whether the standard for food safety in the United States is one of “relative safety,” i.e. one that permits foods, food additives or foods with pesticide chemical residues to be marketed as long as their benefits have been deemed to exceed their risks, or one that focuses on “safety” (without regard to benefits or regulatory costs) and requires a “reasonable certainty of no harm” for all products in the American food supply.
So I asked a representative from the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) during the public engagement session on how the products of agricultural biotechnology are regulated in the US (held at UC Davis on March 30 in response to a White House request for a review of the US “Coordinated Framework” for regulating GMOs):
What is the US standard? “Relative safety” or “safety”?
His answer (not a direct quote): According to the US federal Food, Drug, and Cosmetic Act (the Act), the primary food safety statute in the United States, the standard for food safety is “reasonable certainty of no harm,” not relative safety.
And this standard applies to all foods in the US, whether GE, organic and/or produced using industrialized agriculture.
In researching this topic, however, I can see how it could be seen as confusing.
For one thing, the 1906 federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic act (345 pages long and amended multiple times, starting in 1958) doesn’t provide much of a definition of “safety.” This is how “safety” is defined in it: The term ‘‘safe,’’ as used in paragraph (s) of this section and in sections 409, 512, and 721, has reference to the health of man or animal.
It also appears, according to an article in the Ecology Law Quarterly by Daryl M. Freedman, that the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and various US courts do not necessarily adhere well to this standard of “reasonable certainly of no harm” (at least not back in the 1970s!).
But I think Freedman’s article is still amazingly relevant to not only regulation of GMOs but to other food-related issues being debated today as well.
For example, the author quotes members of Congress from back in the times various amendments to the Act were being considered, shedding light on the concerns expressed by congressional members about regulatory costs, the limits of science, etc.
Despite these concerns, however, Congress still supported the strict standard of safety: “reasonable certainly of no harm.”