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General Possibilities: The Precautionary Principle Again

20.dec.02, Justin Kastner, Commentary from the Food Safety Network

Poised to make permanent its ban on growth-promoting hormones used in animal agriculture, the European Union has fallen prey, once again, to the meaningless logic of the precautionary principle. And EU scientists are at fault.
Rather than elaborate public health policy on the basis of specific probabilities, European scientists remain preoccupied with general possibilities.
In a press announcement earlier this week, the European Commission explained that its ban on growth-promoting hormones "is based on the repeatedly confirmed scientific opinion of the Scientific Committee on Veterinary measures relating to Public Health (SCVPH)."
Yet this "confirmed scientific opinion" regards general, not specific, risks. And the difference is significant.
In a 1997 ruling regarding complaints brought by Canada and the U.S., the WTO declared that the EU's ban on beef produced with growth-promoting hormones was not based on an assessment of the specific risks of eating such beef. In its decision (and again in a 1998 appellate ruling), the WTO ruled that the EU failed to address the specific public health issue at hand: "The potential adverse effects arising from presence in food of residues of hormones." Instead, the SCVPH pointed to studies that demonstrate that hormones used in beef production, like oestradiol-17-ß, have been certified as carcinogens with tumour-initiating and tumour-promoting effects. Few scientists dispute that hormones like oestradiol-17-ß are carcinogens.
The error in logic committed by the SCVPH is that it failed to consider the specific risks of eating beef produced with them. It is a significant error; to draft public health policy on the basis of the general risks of carcinogenicity would logically require bans on a wide variety of substances--from coffee to birth control pills.
Growth-promoting hormones have been used by the North American beef industry for over 30 years. Growth-promoting hormones are administered at very low levels to boost feed efficiency and, by extension, weight gain. Their use, which has helped produce leaner and more affordable beef, is now commonplace
in the North American beef industry and elsewhere around the globe. Numerous scientific bodies, from the Codex Alimentarius Commission to Canadian and US regulatory agencies, have agreed that the use of hormones in beef production is safe.
In Canada, the Health Protection Branch of Health Canada has approved the use of the natural hormones oestradiol-17-ß, progesterone and testosterone, and the synthetic hormones zeranol, trenbolone acetate and melengestrol acetate. With the exception of melengestrol acetate, the hormones are approved either alone or in combination as components of an ear implant in animals. Melengestrol acetate is approved as a feed additive and also prevents heat cycles in heifers.
In 1987, a joint committee of the Food and Agricultural Organization and the World Health Organization studied growth-promoting hormones. The committee
declared them to be safe, concluding that the daily hormone levels produced in a human are several million times the amount contained in a 500-gram piece of meat from a hormone-treated animal. While the WTO-recognized Codex Alimentarius Commission stresses the proper administration of growth-promoting hormones (and, for some hormones, maximum doses), it has concluded that adverse affects to humans from eating hormone-treated meat are unlikely. "Unlikely" is a statement of probability. The EU, in resisting the Codex Alimentarius Commission's claim, refuses to address likelihood, or probability. Instead, it appeals to the general risks of hormones, without reference to the context in which they are actually used.
Other critics note that hormones used as growth promoters in cattle cause breast cancer and may be causing girls to reach puberty earlier than previously. But many of these claims allude to cases, many of which occurred in the EU, involving mismanagement--either involving hormones that are now illegal or the improper administration of hormones to animals.
Rather than placate to the foolish logic of the precautionary principle, Europe should simply admit why it loathes hormone-treated beef. In Europe, there is a general, cultural rejection of anything that smacks of modern, intensive agriculture. Rather than dress it up with science, the EU should be transparent about this cultural preference.

Justin Kastner is a doctoral student with the Food Safety Network at the University of Guelph

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