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'CQ Researcher' features Marchant column

February 02, 2009

In an opinion piece in the Jan. 23 issue of CQ Researcher, Professor Gary Marchant of the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law urges caution in the application of the precautionary principle when dealing with uncertain risks, from vaccines to Corn Flakes.

The precautionary principle originated in Europe about 40 years ago and now is binding law in Europe, Canada, Australia and parts of Asia, as well as being part of more than 60 international treaties, Marchant wrote. It states that, if an action or policy might cause severe or irreversible harm to the public or the environment, and if there is no scientific consensus that harm would not occur, the burden of proof falls on advocates of the action.

But Marchant said there is no standard or official definition for the precautionary principle, and its many interpretations don't offer clear guidelines on key questions such as what manufacturers must do to satisfy it, nor do they factor in costs to do so.

"Without answering these fundamental questions, the PP opens the door to arbitrary decisions motivated by political bias, protectionism, and other inappropriate motives, rather than objective scientific evidence of risk," Marchant wrote.

Examples include Corn Flakes being banned in Norway because added vitamins theoretically could harm an ultra-susceptible person, cranberry drinks being banned in Denmark due to potential Vitamin C risks, and France banning Red Bull because caffeine might harm pregnant women (but they were not prevented from drinking coffee), he said.

"More tragically, Zambia cited the PP to deny U.S. food aid to its starving population because of the possible presence of genetically modified corn (which Americans routinely eat with no apparent consequences)," Marchant wrote.

Janie Magruder,
(480) 727-9052
Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law