Andrea Knox and Susan Warner
Jun. 27--PARIS-Marc Brianu, a police inspector, was inspecting the fruit at the Franprix supermarket in Montparnasse.
"As much as possible, I want to buy food from France, because I know that the quality of French products is higher than what comes from most other places," he said.
While never humble about its cuisine, France has joined with much of Europe in a growing resistance to high-tech foods, such as hormone-fed beef and genetically modified plants imported, largely, from the United States.
Last week, European environmental ministers voted to make it more difficult to market genetically engineered seeds.
With its history of deadly "mad cow" disease, dioxin-tainted chickens and, this month, schoolchildren felled mysteriously by Coca-Cola products, Europe has grown deeply cynical about futuristic food.
Prince Charles has banned genetically altered seeds from his family's lands. This month, protesters crashed a British farm show and destroyed a display of genetically modified sugar beets. And two major British retailers, Marks & Spencer and J. Sainsbury's, are pulling genetically modified foods from their private lines.
"Food should be natural," Brianu said. "Hormones help the producer, but they aren't good for the consumer."
As for genetically modified foods: "I am afraid of them."
Meanwhile, across the Atlantic, barbecue season is firing up and there is little worry about what Europeans call "Frankenstein foods."
"To us, if there is more, if it is better, if it is cheaper, then it seems OK," said Libby Mikesell, a spokeswoman for the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington.
U.S. officials blame the backlash in Europe on protectionism that could damage domestic exporters who have invested billions in the new technology.
Still, the biofood disconnect points up sharp cultural, historical and political differences between Europe and the United States.
European attitudes are founded, in large part, by Britain's 1996 bout with "mad cow" disease, or bovine spongiform encephalopathy, that killed 40 people.
"A lot of the current resistance goes back to the mad cow crisis and all that it did to undermine the European consumers' faith about what the government can do to assure their health," said Tim Galvin, administrator of the foreign agricultural service at the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Galvin said Belgian authorities hurt confidence again this year when they took weeks to respond after discovering that chicken feed was mixed with the chemical dioxin.
But activists opposed to genetically modified organisms say it goes deeper than mad cow hysteria, and is about uncertainties over long-term effects on health and the environment.
"What Europeans are concerned about is not only food safety-what happens when I put it in my mouth and swallow-but increasingly it is about whole food systems and democracy," said Stephanie Howard of ASEED, Action for Solidarity, Equality, Environment and Development, with headquarters in Amsterdam.
Europe, which is in the process of unifying political and economic institutions, retains a complex, disjointed set of food-monitoring agencies.
The European Commission has an overall advisory role, but each country can still make a final determination of what crosses its borders.
"You have a system in flux, so while one country may approve something, the country next door may not. It is very political. And no decision is reassuring," Mikesell said.
Galvin said Americans, by comparison, have more faith in the government agencies that regulate foods-the Food and Drug Administration, Department of Agriculture and Environmental Protection Agency.
He said the national debate in the early 1990s, before the United States approved its first genetically modified product, the Flavr Savr tomato in 1992, led to American acceptance of bioengineered foods.
Genetically modified seed has been planted on 60 million acres worldwide this year, compared with zero four years ago, according to the International Service for the Acquisition of Agi-Biotech Applications at Cornell University.
In the United States, about 25 percent of the corn crop, 33 percent of soybeans, and 45 percent of cotton is grown from genetically modified seed, the group says.
In 1994, Europe approved its first genetically modified product, weed-resistant tobacco. Since then, the European Commission has approved genetically altered corn and soybeans.
Marc Ritchie, president of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, a group in Minneapolis that opposes genetically modified organisms, said more Americans would object to modified foods if they knew how widely the products were used.
A study this year for the International Food Information Council, a research group funded by food manufacturers and the U.S. government, found that 47 percent of Americans believe there are no foods produced by biotechnology in U.S. supermarkets. That was up from 37 percent in 1997. However, the same study showed that 62 percent of Americans said they would be "totally likely" to buy produce modified by biotechnology.
In Europe, a study last year by Eurobarometer found that 86 percent of consumers wanted genetically modified organisms to be labeled. Only a quarter of the respondents said they trusted national governments or the EU to tell them the truth about food safety.
"People want to go back to pure food," said Sue Sadler, a spokeswoman for Marks & Spencer in London.
European consumers resent what they say is the heavy hand of American agribusiness, she said. Monsanto Co., the St. Louis seed producer, has been a lightning rod for controversy in the United Kingdom.
"People here object to the sheer arrogance that we were told you have no choice, either you like it or you lump it," she said.
The European media, especially in the United Kingdom, have hopped onto the biotech story with banner headlines and investigative pieces. British Prime Minister Tony Blair has called it "media hysteria."
Last Sunday, The Independent in London ran a front-page expose revealing that Monsanto uses genetically modified bacteria to produce its artificial sweetener, aspartame, for the U.S. market. But while millions of Europeans are concentrated in huge metropolitan areas such as Paris and London, most retain a closer connection to the land than do Americans, many of whom live half a continent away from the agricultural heartland.
"I think in Europe there is a stronger cultural connection to food and how it is grown and where it is grown," said Charles Benbrook, an Idaho-based consultant to Consumers Union.
Indeed, Brianu, the shopper, said he buys his meat and vegetables from the family of a friend who lives in the country.
U.S. officials, however, argue that Europeans' love for the land may simply mask trade barriers and economic self-interest.
The U.S. Trade Representative's office estimates that European agriculture receives about $60 billion in subsidies, or about 85 percent of the world's total agricultural subsidies.
People on both sides of the debate agree that Americans have greater optimism than Europeans about the capabilities of science and technology.
"In Europe, 12 or 15 years ago, they went through a similar debate on personal computers," said Galvin, in that they were concerned about the long-term effect of computers on the workforce and society.
In the U.S. regulatory process, genetically modified foods must meet the requirement of "substantial equivalence" that they are just as nutritious and add no allergens or toxins compared with the original. The United States does not require genetically modified foods to be labeled. The European Commission has such a requirement. But U.S. exporters complain that it amounts to a trade barrier because, they say, they are unable to separate genetically modified corn or soybeans from nonmodified crops in huge silos.
"Our orientation is toward the product, not the process," said Dave Schmidt, senior vice president of the International Food Information Council, the research group.
"We can never say we know all there is to know, but there's no evidence after 10 years of any harm," he said. "The benefits are tremendous but the risks are tiny."
European scientists are more willing to invoke the "precautionary principle," meaning that when there is uncertainty about risks, it is best to hold off until you are sure. And in this case, the stakes could be enormous, Europeans say.
"Once the GM genie is out of the bottle, the impact on the environment is likely to be irreversible. That is why the precautionary principle is so particularly important on this issue," said William Asscher, chairman of the Board of Science and Education of the British Medical Association. In May, the organization called for a moratorium on commercial planting of genetically modified crops until more research can be done.
European scientists are more willing than Americans to consider secondary affects of scientific progress, said Benbrook, the Consumers Union consultant.
"In the U.S., the attitude is, 'That's the regulatory agency's job,'" he said. "If we can market it, and we can make a buck, the market doesn't lie."
But in Europe, the market has spoken.
Sophie Guillin, another shopper at Franprix, said there had not been enough time to know the effects of beef hormones, which were banned in Europe 10 years ago but are used widely in the United States.
"When in doubt, don't use them," she said.
Schmidt said Americans may be willing to accept more risk because it is typically American companies, their employees and shareholders that stand to benefit from broader commercialization of genetically modified foods.
Schmidt, however, pointed to a seeming contradiction in the European stance. Recently, a group of European journalists was grilling him about American food safety. He smirked when he realized many of them were smoking cigarettes.
Benbrook said Europeans' willingness to consume high-cholesterol foods and tobacco, and their objection to genetically modified foods, has more to do with choice than risk.
"They're willing to accept risks that are voluntarily accepted," he said. "I think they are traditionally very unaccepting of risk imposed on them by others."
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Last Updated on 6/30/99
By Karen Lutz