There are many similarities between the regions and cultures, so why is there such a stark difference in regulations?
The overarching reason is that the U.S. has a much more capitalist culture. Americans tend to value innovation, choices, technology and entrepreneurship over regulations and consumer protection.
“From a political perspective, many people in our country don’t want as much regulation, even when it comes to consumer product safety,” said Caitlin Hoff, a Consumer Advocate at ConsumerSafety.org.
Because of lax legal requirements, U.S. food and drug companies are often able to be their own judges and and juries, said Jaydee Hanson, Policy Director at the Center for Food Safety. All these corporations need to do is tell the relevant regulatory agencies about their projects. Brands can launch products without demonstrating the safety and health of their ingredients.
“We believe chemicals are innocent until proven guilty,” Hanson said, referring to the attitude of American brands and regulatory agencies.
Instead of manufacturers and government bodies taking responsibility, in the U.S. the onus is on researchers, public health organizations, consumers and activists to present evidence that a chemical should be prohibited. Through class action lawsuits, complaints and public campaigns, people can pressure government agencies to implement bans and limits on ingredients.
But even if one government agency takes a stance against a controversial substance, this opposition might not lead to a federal ban. Regulatory power is divided among many national organizations, and they usually take years to reach a consensus on anything. There is the FDA, CDC, EPA, FTC and USDA — and that’s not even half the list.
When a regulatory agency or politician does manage to pass legislation that bans or restricts an ingredient, other government powers can overturn the decision. Industry lobbyists have regularly succeeded in persuading congress or various courts to oppose laws that might hurt their business. Other times the administrations at government agencies will change or reverse policies on regulating chemicals.
These problems are encapsulated in the story of asbestos. This industrial chemical is still legal in the U.S., despite volumes of research proving it is hazardous. In 1989 the EPA banned most products that contained asbestos. Several years later the asbestos lobby pressured the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals in New Orleans to overturn the decision.
Nonetheless, asbestos use declined because of public concern, and the last asbestos mine closed in 2002. Currently there is a debate within the EPA: some members want to deregulate asbestos, while others are still trying to ban it entirely.
In Europe the system is the complete opposite. It is proactive, not reactive. Food safety agencies need to approve ingredients before they are included in products. When people have concerns about an ingredient, it is removed permanently or until researchers can prove it is safe. Because there is a consolidation of regulatory power under the European Commision and General Food Law, legal decisions are quick, effective and lasting.
Rather than waiting for regulation, today many American consumers are seeking ethical brands that do not use controversial ingredients. There has been a shift toward “natural” products that tend to contain less unhealthy chemicals.
American activists and organizations are trying to reform their system by applying legal pressure to key parties. In 2017 the Center for Food Safety won a lawsuit that forced the USDA to release a study on labeling genetically engineered foods, one of many successful efforts to reform the food and drug industry.
It seems like more and more U.S. consumers are realizing they can prioritize their health and safety without compromising the American spirit of innovation and freedom. America doesn’t need to become exactly like Europe, but perhaps it can learn from its predecessor.
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