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More Politics Than Science in Food-Safety Concerns

04.dec.00, Douglas Powell, The Calgary Herald A11

Science, according to some, can be bought.

In a cynical, conspiracy-laden, post-modernly malciferous world, it has come to be expected that mainstream scientific pronouncements -- especially those involving industry support -- are automatically suspect. Certainly there have been enough incidents over the years (thanks for the smoke, Doc) to warrant suspicion and scientists are well-advised to disclose all financial interests and supporters.

But accountability goes both ways. Case in point: the recent furore caused by a strategically leaked draft report by European investigators allegedly damning Canadian meat production methods, specifically the use of growth hormones and antibiotics. While so-called health advocates cried risk -- ``Our children must be protected from cancer-causing drugs in meat,'' said one -- cattle producers and regulators insisted that Canadian meat was safe, safer even than products from a mad-cow-infested Europe. Few, however, questioned the motives of the groups who made the report public, the tamely named Canadian Health Coalition.

Growth-promoting hormones have been used by the beef industry for more than 30 years to improve an animal's ability to utilize the nutrients it consumes to produce more muscle and less fat. Numerous scientific bodies, as well as Canadian and U.S. regulatory agencies have looked at the issue and concluded that the use of hormones in beef production is safe. The Codex Alimentarius Commission, a joint body of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization, is the international standard-setting organization for food. The 52nd meeting of the Codex Alimentarius Commission Joint FAO/WHO Expert Committee on Food Additives in Rome in February, 1999, recommended acceptable daily intakes for the three additives estradiol-17, progesterone and testosterone. The data reviewed indicated a wide margin of safety for consumption of residues in food when the drug is used according to good practice in the use of veterinary drugs. The committee concluded that the presence of drug residues does not present a health concern and does not pose any health risk to humans.

Hormones occur naturally in many foods. A standard serving of potatoes contains 225 nanograms of estrogen. A three-ounce serving of beef from an implanted steer contains 1.9 nanograms of estrogen. In addition, the human body naturally produces hormones in quantities greater than would be consumed by eating beef or any other foods.

In 1999, a World Trade Organization panel of three neutral arbitrators ruled that the EU's decade-old ban on the import of hormone treated beef broke global trade rules. The United States and Canada claim the EU's ban is a discriminatory barrier to trade that has everything to do with protectionism and is not justified by a legitimate health concerns. Canada received authorization from the WTO to levy 100-per-cent tariffs on $11.3 million in imported European goods. The EU says it has not backed down on its ban because it needs more time for a long-term study on the health risk of beef hormones.

The hotly disputed issue illustrates how hard it is to sort out conflicting health claims when the science is complex and those interpreting it often reach conclusions that serve their own political and economic agendas.

So the latest EU report -- which is in draft format and, according to the Canadian Food Inspection Agency contains factual errors -- can easily be written off as another example of the old saying: one country's scientific standard is another's non-tariff trade barrier. But the CFIA, to its credit, is taking the report seriously. Reporting systems, data collection methodologies and public availability can always be improved. Complacency is the bane of many a food-safety system and, given the biological nature of entities involved, continual vigilance is a necessity.

But why did the report land on the front page of the Globe and Mail -- a report that was essentially a rehash of a CHC press release, with a few caveats thrown in for journalistic balance, I guess -- and kick start a short lived media frenzy, one that failed to stand up to scrutiny? Political expediency, and nothing else.

The Globe seems particularly vulnerable to the offerings of the CHC. On July 19, 1999, the Globe reported in a front-page story, essentially the same story about beef hormones, again promoted by the coalition. In fact, it is the same story outline the CHC and others have woven over the years about genetically engineered foods. Perhaps Globe reporters should check their overpriced database, InfoGlobe.

The story goes like this. First, find a scientific study somewhere that suggests an unacceptable level of risk, even if the overwhelming majority of the scientific community declares the product in question safe. Next, argue against practical experience. Growth hormones have been safely used in beef cattle for 30 years.

Finally -- this is where the Canadian Labour Congress-backed CHC comes in -- stress the need for more government oversight and testing. And jobs for government inspectors.

Industry is quite capable of overseeing testing procedures to ensure the safety of their products; so is government. As long as the data is ultimately made public, with some level of public oversight, the source of the testing is largely irrelevant.

Food safety is serious business, and the social magnification of theoretical risks may trivialize significant and well-characterized risks in food such as microbial contamination, which sickens hundreds of thousands of Canadians each year, and belittles attempts made by producers, processors, retailers and regulators to provide safe, inexpensive and nutritious foods. To call for a Walkerton-style inquiry, as one of the so-called health advocates did the other day, is to ignore decades of scientific research in exchange for political expediency -- especially during an election -- and insulting to the residents of Walkerton who have suffered through death and illness due to a bacterium, E. coli O157:H7; a bacterium that groups like CHC either ignore or wrap in a politically palatable version suitable for their supporters. Bacteria tend to ignore political preferences, and accountability goes both ways.