Food Regulation in the EU vs the U.S.: Does Politics Trump Science?

João Rodrigues, EU Visiting Fellow and Senior Legal Counsel of the European Parliament
May 11, 2017

On April 26, the European Union Studies Program sponsored a conversation between David R. Cameron, Professor of Political Science and Director of the European Union Studies Program, and João Rodrigues, EU Visiting Fellow and Senior Legal Counsel of the European Parliament, on food regulation in the EU and in the U.S. and the role that politics plays in it. (view video)

The conversation began with the basic differences between the European and the American institutional frameworks. The centerpiece of the American system is the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), which is an “older body” with a “longer tradition,” more funds, and greater authority. In contrast, the European system is made up of agencies – advisory bodies that function in support of the main institutions, the Commission, the Parliament, and the Council of the European Union. For food regulation, the main agency is the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA). It holds a purely advisory role and has considerably less resources than the FDA. It is divided into working groups that bring together experts from various member states for specific issues, such as pesticides or biotechnologies.

For any new bill, the first move in the regulatory process belongs to the Commission, the only player that can initiate legislation. But where does the idea for a regulation originate? According to Rodrigues, “All play a role: interest groups, lobbyists, NGOs, and even the institutions.” Sometimes a new regulation will be the result of a “food scare,” as was the case with the mad cow disease outbreak. However, most often it is the lobbying of interest groups to the Commission. When a draft is proposed, explained Rodrigues, it is passed on to the Parliament and the Council – “these two can be thought of as the Senate and the House of Representatives.” In the Council, the interests of single member states are represented, while the Parliament consists of political groups that cut across national boundaries and strive to represent European citizens. Importantly, while the Parliament has equal say to the Council for the adoption of food safety directives and regulations – the “legislative side,” – it does not always have authority when it comes to the “implementation side,” where the Commission and the Council play a major role.

Rodrigues said that the buzzword for European food regulation right now is the “precautionary principle.” In practice, it determines that “when there is uncertainty about specific risks but you don’t have all the data, nonetheless you have the authority to address those risks.” As such, the Commission can “regulate, restrict, and ultimately ban a food” if the “risk of damage to the population is too big to wait for more data.” This approach has received criticism by American legal scholars, who argue that it is “too vague for a guiding principle” and that it “runs the risk of killing innovation.”

This event was sponsored by the European Union Studies Program at the MacMillan Center at Yale.

Written by Simone Paci, B.A. Economics and Political Science, Class of 2017.