Illustration: Richard Mia
Europeans have said no to food technology we've embraced. So, how safe is it?Six weeks of vacation. National healthcare. A tolerance for philandering politicians. In general, Europeans exhibit more liberal tendencies than Americans. But when it comes to the purity of their food, they are far more conservative. The European Union has banned—or required labeling on—foods whose production involves genetic modification or irradiation, for example, while the United States has largely embraced these innovations.
"The EU prioritizes consumer health and consumers' right to know what's in their food," says Michael K. Hansen, PhD, a senior scientist with the Consumers Union, a nonprofit independent testing and advocacy group for product safety based in New York. For example, with genetically engineered foods, the EU requires government safety testing.
Of course, it's not as if safety is disregarded in the U.S.: The FDA—overburdened though it may be—evaluates new technologies and ingredients carefully before allowing their widespread use. But the government relies primarily on evidence supplied by food manufacturers themselves. America's approach is driven by a desire to produce inexpensive food on a large scale, says Hansen, while Europe's stance reflects a reverence for local food and old-fashioned farming.
Next: How you can make an informed decision at the supermarket
Here are four areas of food production that are more regulated in Europe than in the U.S. We've weighed the evidence on each side so you can make a more informed choice at the supermarket.
In Europe foods containing any of six synthetic dyes linked to behavioral problems in kids must carry the warning "May have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children." In the U.S., three of the problematic colorings are off the market; the remainder are among a total of eight that the Washington, D.C.–based watchdog group Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI) has asked the FDA to ban in the wake of a 2004 analysis and two other studies that determined the dyes increase hyperactivity.
Should you care? The evidence against dyes is fairly strong: Studies dating back to the 1970s show that they can cause behavioral problems in children. "As many as half of all children are just a little sensitive, and a few are very sensitive. But it's hard for most parents to tell just how sensitive their children are," says David Schab, MD, a psychiatrist at Columbia University Medical Center and lead author of the 2004 analysis.
Bottom line: Avoid brightly colored processed foods: The dyes in question—yellow 5, red 40, blue 1, blue 2, green 3, orange B, red 3, and yellow 6—turn up in cereals, macaroni and cheese, candy, crackers, tortilla chips, and even children's vitamins. According to CSPI, most of the products sold at Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are free of the dyes (you can always check the ingredient labels for the offending colors). You can also use the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy's Online Brain Food Selector at IATP.org/Brainfoodselector .
Antibiotics in Animal Feed
Since 1998 the EU has prohibited the practice of promoting livestock growth by lacing feed and water with low-dose antibiotics. In the U.S., up to 70 percent of all antibiotics are given to healthy livestock (primarily to promote growth), even though the practice can cause strains of drug-resistant campylobacter (the most common source of bacterial food-borne illness in the U.S.) to turn up in chickens. And MRSA—a potentially deadly, drug-resistant staph bacterium—has been found in the pork on supermarket shelves.
Should you care? Yes, if you want to take a stand against the rise in antibiotic-resistant infections.
Bottom line: Look for the words "no antibiotics added" on labels, and buy only certified-organic meats and poultry.
Next: Genetic modification and irradiation
Approximately 70 percent of the processed foods on American supermarket shelves—from snack items and baked goods to tomato sauce, breakfast cereals, and beyond—contain ingredients from genetically modified (GM) soy, corn, canola, or cottonseed. In addition, some of the crookneck squash, zucchini, and Hawaiian papaya sold in the U.S. are genetically engineered. GM crops in the U.S. are designed to be bug-, herbicide-, and disease-resistant. "These crops are not required to go through a mandatory safety assessment before going on the market," Hansen says. "There are still serious questions about health consequences that can arise when you genetically engineer an organism, then eat it."
In Europe, if a genetically modified ingredient makes up .9 percent or more of a food, the packaging must carry a GM label. In the U.S., GM foods are not labeled.
Should you care? There isn't enough research to say for sure. One early example of what can go wrong occurred in the mid-1990s, when researchers inserted what turned out to be a highly allergenic protein from Brazil nuts into soybeans. That bean was scrapped, and since then food scientists have been more careful. Food allergy expert Steve L. Taylor, PhD, director of the Food Allergy Research Resource Program at the University of Nebraska, says there's little evidence of increased allergy risk from GM foods.
Bottom line: You can hedge your bets by choosing certified-organic baked goods and processed foods.
Most of the EU permits irradiation only for dried herbs, spices, and vegetable-based seasonings; since 1963 the FDA has approved irradiation to zap dangerous organisms in chicken, eggs, beef, pork, lamb, flour, herbs, spices, fruit, and vegetables.
Critics warn that the process—which uses X-rays, gamma rays, or electron beams—reduces nutrient levels in foods, may increase levels of possible carcinogens, creates off tastes, and covers up sloppy farming and distribution practices that contaminate food. Proponents say these claims are unfounded. "Food irradiation should never be used to 'clean up' dirty food products," says Suresh D. Pillai, PhD, director of the National Center for Electron Beam Food Research at Texas A&M University. "But there are about 5,000 deaths annually in the U.S. due to food-borne pathogens. Irradiation can eliminate many of those."
Should you care? At a time when food-borne pathogens are on the rise, choosing irradiated items at the supermarket could help you sidestep trouble, Pillai says.
Bottom line: Irradiated foods (except herbs and spices) carry this symbol . Considering the known risks and benefits, that should make you feel reassured.
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