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Sunday, June 2, 2013

Genetically-Modified Foods: Health in the E.U. and Rights in the U.S.

With regard to genetically-modified (GM) foodstuffs, an interesting cultural difference between Americans and Europeans surfaces. Even though both peoples are fully capable of over-reacting to a presumed danger, what they select and how they react differently can be instructive, culturally speaking.
From the plethora of riveting news reports, Europeans might have been assuming that a dire infectious germ had entered the E.U. from Oregon sometime before the end of May 2013. Specifically, E.U. officials were warning that “unauthorized genetically modified grains” had been found on an Oregon farm and might be found on European dinner tables lest shipments from Oregon are not immediately tested. The E.U.’s consumer protection office issued the following statement: “The Commission is following carefully the presence of this non-authorized GM wheat in Oregon in order to ensure that European consumers are protected from any unauthorized GM presence and make sure that the EU zero tolerance for such GM events is implemented.” Clearly, E.U. officials were taking no chances with such a baleful pathogen. It was as though the mere unauthorized presence of a “GM event” could cause mass panic and hysteria in European cities and towns, with the contagion resulting in the euro tumbling against the dollar and southern Europe falling into the sea.
                      Warning: If you see this genetically-modified Commission regulator in a public place, call your local police immediately and do not under any circumstance approach him yourself. Source: Flickr
As the E.U. Commission was expressing its “zero tolerance” for the insidious wheat, the U.S. DEA (Drug Enforcement Administration) was sticking with its own “zero tolerance” mantra for any marijuana at all being smoked or sold. It was as though the DEA officials had realized that 1936 film, Reefer Madness, accurately predicted the future generations of Americans who would  regard Brussels as some kind of vegetable served with butter.
Not to be outdone by drug agents, the management of Ben & Jerry’s, a Vermont company that sells ice-cream, announced that employees would extract the genetically-modified organisms in the ice-cream. Organisms? Now there’s something scary! Eighty percent of the ice-cream made by the company did not include the little critters, yet going to one-hundred percent would entail a “complex” process, given how many ingredients are in the flavors. Not surprisingly, all of the company’s ice-cream made in the E.U. had already been cleared of any such organisms, lest mass panic be unleashed across Europe. Ben & Jerry’s manner of address to the Americans on the issue was noticeably less dire. In fact, it seems as though the company used the issue to publically (i.e., marketing) reinforce its image as a socially responsible company.
For example, on one of the Ben & Jerry’s web-pages, the theme is rights rather than protection from danger. The page’s title reads: “We Support the GMO Right-to-Know Labeling Movement.” Just to the right is a cow holding a sign that reads, “Everyone has a right to know what’s in their food.” Throughout the four paragraphs underneath, right is frequently used. Ben & Jerry’s is pro-consumer-rights, which as a movement is perfectly fitting in the land of the free.
Undoubtedly, the science on the impact of genetically-modified food on humans had not proffered the sort of consensus that could in turn give rise to a convergence pulling both sides of the northern Atlantic closer together. Even with such a meeting of the minds, the respective actual reactions can tell us something about other cultural differences. For example, the emphasis on the enforcement of government regulation in the E.U. is noticeably different than Ben & Jerry’s use of corporate social responsibility. Generally speaking, Americans are more likely to be content with industry self-regulation as an alternative to “big government” and “bureaucracy.” The respective terms used tell the story. Whereas rights is salient in Ben & Jerry’s statement, zero tolerance, unauthorized, and implementation are striking in the Commission’s release. I suspect that this contrast gets at an important difference between the respective cultures.


After GMO Wheat Seeds Found, EU Recommends Testing U.S. Shipments,” The Huffington Post, May 31, 2013.

Hunter Stuart, “Ben & Jerry’s Will Stop Using Genetically-Modified Ingredients, Company Says,” The Huffington Post, June 2, 2013.