The debate over the Precautionary Principle is complicated.
On the one hand, it has been a valuable tool over the last few decades to leverage greater focus on risk management. When organizations invest the time, resources and expertise required to properly assess present and future liabilities, that effort benefits both customers and the bottom line. Maybe not in the immediate short-term, but certainly over the long run.
But when given undue prominence, the Precautionary Principle, as the authors of a new report from the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology suggest, may be “the most reckless, arbitrary and ill-advised concept in the last quarter century.”
The reality is that the Precautionary Principle sits squarely at the intersection of private-sector self-policing, driven by market forces and business imperatives, and top-down governmental regulations driven by political calculus.
Most reasonable people (certain activists excluded) agree that either extreme is unhelpful: Modern societies cannot halt scientific and technological progress simply because risk may be attached, nor does stifling, burdensome regulatory oversight advance either public or private benefit.
In short, the Precautionary Principle cannot be wielded as a principle that is immutable. It needs to be flexible, malleable, existential—exactly the opposite of how we understand “principles.” To be a functional tool that can advance both risk management and food safety, the Precautionary Principle cannot be drawn as a line in the sand.
Money for nothing
This dilemma is topical (again) because the Food Safety and Inspection Service just approved a “Non-Bioengineered” food label for meat and liquid egg products, with the claim the products were processed from “animals raised on diets containing no bioengineered grain or ingredients.”
The approval was in response to an application from The Non-G.M.O. Project, a Bellingham, Wash.-based activist group, and three California-based food companies: Mindful Meats in Point Reyes, which markets organic grass-fed beef; Pitman Family Farms in Sanger, which markets free-range chicken and other poultry products; and Hidden Villa Ranch in Fullerton, which produces eggs and egg products.
According to a statement from FSIS Office of Public Affairs and Consumer Education, “The approved labels state that the products meet the standards of a third-party certifier regarding the use of non-GMO feed. The agency has not developed any new policy regarding non-genetically engineered or non-GMO products and is not certifying that the labeled products are free of genetic engineering or genetic modifications.”