11 February 2000

The precautionary principle defined?

Last week Brussels issued its definition

of the "precautionary principle" in an

attempt to take the steam out of a

number of heated trade disputes. But, as

Europe editor Philip Clarke explains,

offering weasel words does not really

help when science is against you

FOR some time, Brussels observers have been wondering exactly what is meant by the "precautionary principle".

To the uninitiated, it sounds like it may have something to do with wearing seat belts, giving up smoking or safe sex. The more enlightened realise it concerns international trade, though exactly what, is something of a mystery.

But now, after months of delay and deliberation, the EU Commission has issued its clear, unambiguous definition.

"The precautionary principle," it says, "forms part of a structured approach to the analysis and management of risk. It covers cases where scientific evidence is insufficient, inconclusive or uncertain, and preliminary scientific evaluation indicates that there are reasonable grounds for concern that the potentially dangerous effects (from a phenomenon, product or process) on the environment, human, animal or plant health may be inconsistent with the high level of protection chosen by the EU." In these circumstances, certain "measures" may be taken.

In plain English, this means that, where there is a doubt about somethings safety, the EU can block imports from another country.

That sounds fair enough. But who decides whether there is a risk?

The commissions statement makes clear that that remains a political responsibility. Politicians can choose which scientific advice is relevant.

But isnt that a carte blanche for protectionism?

Not according to the commission. It goes on to say that any action must be "proportional" to the perceived risk. "A total ban may not be a proportional response in all cases."

But the EUs trading partners are unconvinced. Ultimately, it comes down to scientific opinion and the big question remains, "whose?".

The cynical answer is "whoevers suits the EUs political aims".

Take the case of hormone-reared beef. The US Food and Drug Administration says there is no problem with the practice. The World Health Organisation and the Food and Agriculture Organisation say there is no problem. The UKs Veterinary Products Committee says there is no problem. Even the EUs own Lamming Committee in the 1980s said there was no problem.

But still the EU wont accept imports of hormone-treated beef and, two years ago, commissioned another 17 research projects – presumably in the hope of unearthing some new evidence to prove it is dangerous.

From an EU farming point of view this is no bad thing. Beef markets are fragile enough and to expose them to a flood of cheap hormone-treated beef would do untold damage.

But it makes a mockery of a precautionary principle that is supposed to be proportionate to the level of health risk.

This is seen in even starker terms in the case of France, which is currently invoking the precautionary principle to keep British beef off its market.

Again, the bulk of scientific opinion says there is nothing wrong with beef exported under the date-based scheme. But the French prefer the interpretation of their own food safety experts, which they use to justify their ban.

Perhaps the UK should start using the precautionary principle to its own advantage.

The bulk of scientific opinion says there is nothing wrong with pork reared with meat and bonemeal or beef fed small amounts of processed sewage sludge. But it would not be hard to find a scientist somewhere to suggest these products could be dangerous and should be kept off our market. Prof Lacey springs to mind.

Alternatively, member states, and the EU at large, should come clean. They should allow in those products with a proven track record and inform consumers of the facts through a system of clear and open labelling.

After all, honesty is usually the best policy.