Precaution & Risk

Earlier today, Reps. Mike Pompeo (R-Kan.) and G.K. Butterfield (D-N.C.) introduced a bill in the House that would establish federal standards for the labeling of genetically engineered (GE) foods and preempt a growing patchwork quilt of state action on GE labeling. The underlying motivation behind the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” (H.R. 4432) is praiseworthy, so the congressmen deserve an A for effort. However, the execution leaves more than a little to be desired.

This year, an estimated 25, or more, states will consider legislation or ballot initiatives that would mandate special labeling for many GE foods. As I’ve written before, those proposals are bad policy, make no sense scientifically, would needlessly raise the cost of producing and selling safe, nutritious and wholesome food, and are arguably unconstitutional on several grounds. Nor would they give consumers any actual knowledge about what’s “in their food” – the ostensible purpose of those state measures.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration’s current policy requires foods to be labeled when a material difference has been made in their composition – and the labels must say what the actual change is, not simply what technique was used to make the change. So, in many ways, the FDA’s current policy does a far better job of telling consumers what’s in their food than a GE labeling mandate ever could.

By explicitly preempting state labeling laws and making clear that FDA policy on GE food labeling is the law of the land, H.R. 4432 would serve an extremely valuable function. And, because the packaged food items found in most grocery stores are the epitome of interstate commerce, ensuring that oversight of their safety and labeling be governed at the national level, rather than state-by-state, perfectly reflects the plan established by the framers of the U.S. Constitution.

Unfortunately, in order to attract support for this perfectly reasonable preemption measure, H.R. 4432 offers GE skeptics the enticement of increasing the FDA’s regulatory power. The proposal would grant FDA the authority to keep all new GE foods off the market until agency heads and the presidential administration they work for feel politically safe to grant approvals. Like most other “gatekeeper” regulatory agencies, the FDA would not even need to reject approval for products they don’t like. They would need only decline to make an approval or disapproval determination indefinitely.

Supporters point to a 180-day statutory deadline in the bill, which they argue will force the FDA to make timely approval decisions. But it’s worth noting that the FDA faces identical 180-day statutory deadlines for making approval/disapproval decisions on a host of other products, ranging from new pharmaceuticals and medical devices, to new veterinary drugs and new GE food animals. The agency disregards those deadlines on a routine basis because there is no triggering mechanism that automatically grants a producer the right to put safe and effective products on the market when a recalcitrant FDA refuses to act.

Want to know just how effective that 180-day deadline is? Just ask AquaBounty, the developers of a GE salmon that would help fish farmers deliver one of America’s favorite seafoods to market in a less expensive and more environmentally sustainable way. The FDA determined several years ago that the AquaBounty salmon was safe for consumers and the environment, but its approval has been held up by the Obama Administration simply because their supporters in the environmental movement object to the technology.

Reps. Pompeo and Butterfield do deserve credit for trying to resolve the growing problem of confusing, expensive, and scientifically meritless state labeling proposals for GE food. But, the “Safe and Accurate Food Labeling Act of 2014” contains a serious flaw that will hopefully be corrected once the bill moves to committee.

Have a listen here.

Senior Fellow Angela Logomasini talks about her new Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk.

Post image for Professional Licensing: A Risk to the Free Markets and Freedom of Speech

From physicians to dentists to lawyers, the licensing requirements of many professions are well known—but for bloggers? A recent case in North Carolina demonstrates the dangers that mandatory occupational licensing poses to liberty and how established interests use such requirements to protect their bottom line.

North Carolina resident Steve Cooksey was ill, obese, and struggling with type 2 diabetes. In 2009, after being rushed to the hospital, nearly in a coma, he decided to do everything in his power to get healthy. By following a low-carbohydrate diet, Cooksey claims he was able to drop 45 pounds and get off insulin and drugs. He documented his story on his personal blog, where he provided advice to others practicing the “paleo” diet that he believes saved his life.

That sounds like a win-win situation, but not according to the North Carolina Board of Dietetics and Nutrition (NCBDN), which decided to go after Cooksey for the “crime” of offering nutritional advice without a dietitian’s license. In 2011, it sent Cooksey a letter, claiming that his blog, by giving readers “unlicensed dietetic advice,” even for free, violated North Carolina law. The NCBDN included a 19-page copy of his online writings with comments in red ink pointing out what he could and could not say.

Even more surprising, the notice asserted that Cooksey’s private conversations with readers and friends via email and telephone also constituted a violation of the state’s dietitian licensing law!

Unfortunately, Cooksey’s case is far from an isolated incident. In just about every state, there is a dizzyingly long list of jobs that require would-be workers to go through a long, expensive, and sometimes arduous process to earn the privilege of entering into a given profession. While the stated reason for requiring occupational licenses is public safety, established players operating under existing licensing schemes usually fight tooth and nail to maintain occupational license requirement in place, to make it harder for potential competitors to enter the market.

Today, roughly 30 percent of jobs in the U.S. require some form of license (a sharp increase from a low back in 1950, when the share was only 5 percent). Fortunately, some workers are fighting these licensing regime—and many are winning.

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Everyone seems to be jumping into the debate about high-frequency trading, now that Michael Lewis is peddling his new book, Flash Boys.

Lewis contends that the stock market is rigged, and that the culprit is high-frequency traders. But not everyone agrees that they are to blame, or that the stock market is even rigged to begin with.

Cliff Asness, founder of AQR capital, suggests that high-frequency traders have in fact made trading cheaper for hedge funds. And this, in turn, benefits clients, such as pension funds or university endowments:

What is good for us is lower trading costs because it translates into better investment performance and happier clients, which makes our business slightly more valuable. How do we feel about high-frequency trading? We think it helps us … we devote a lot of effort to understanding our trading costs, and our opinion, derived through quantitative and qualitative analysis, is that on the whole high-frequency traders have lowered costs.

So the hedge funds that benefit from these lower transaction costs are able to pass those savings along to their investors. And their investors are made up largely of pension funds and university endowments.

In short, the savings that high-frequency traders generate get passed on to a very broad base of consumers, including those who only participate in the market indirectly — via a pension plan or as the beneficiary of a university endowment.

There is undoubtedly lots of room for innovation in market microstructures. And new exchanges may be one solution to what some people perceive as a problem. But competition among market participants and exchanges is the way to bring about that innovation — not increased regulatory scrutiny.

I wonder if the same Luddites who whine about HFT would have complained to Thomas Edison that his Universal Stock Ticker gave some investors an unfair advantage over those who relied on newspapers to get their price information.

Post image for Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk

Will these chemicals make me fat? That sounds like a weird question, but some consumers may actually have such worries, thanks to a constant barrage of news headlines suggesting that synthetic chemicals—an even some naturally occurring ones—are responsible for nearly every public health problem imaginable.

My website and CEI‘s recently released booklet, A Consumer’s Guide to Chemical Risk: Deciphering the ‘Science’ Behind Chemical Scares,” are tools designed reduce both the confusion and fear about chemicals. These tools provide consumers with some insights on the science and the politics behind the headlines.

For example, when confronted with a new claim, consumers can evaluate the underlying science by asking the following questions:

  • Is the association strong and statistically significant? Most of the studies in the news are merely statistical analyses that assess whether two factors occur at the same time. They don’t prove cause-and-effect relationships, which can only be inferred when the association is very strong. Accordingly, if researchers report a “weak association” or “suggestive” one, consumers should be suspicious of the claims.
  • Is the sample any good? Ideally, a randomly selected, large sample of a population provides the best chance of good data, but locating and developing such samples is difficult and expensive. Accordingly, researchers often work with less-than-ideal samples and existing databases that offer imperfect data, or both. Accordingly, a study with 1,000 subjects is more reliable than one with 100 subjects.
  • Are there serious confounding factors? The the possibility that a factor other than the two variables in question is responsible for the result is always present. While scientists attempt to apply “controls” in studies in an effort to negate the impact of such confounding factors, it does not always work. Consumers should be suspicious when there are other factors that more likely contributed to the result.
  • What is the potential for recall bias among study participants? Some studies require interviewing subjects about their personal behavior, sometimes expecting them to recall chemical exposures dating back decades. The subject’s failure to recall the facts accurately can so undermine the validity of the data that the final study results are completely off the mark. Be wary of studies that rely on this type of subjective data collection.
  • Does the language used by researchers suggest they are stretching the truth? Good researchers will strive to keep their biases in check, while still working toward finding something interesting. Yet others add “spin” to weak and meaningless “findings” to garner publication and media interest—and more funding. For example, researchers trying to prove that trace chemicals can make us fat have captured headlines by labeling these chemicals as “obesogens.” Their science may be weak and inconclusive, but their marketing it this way garners lots of media coverage.
  • Is the study relevant to humans? Tests on rodents involve administering massive amounts of chemicals to animals bred to be highly susceptible to cancer, and many form tumors as a result. Despite what headlines may suggest, such tests are not particularly relevant to risks associated with human exposures to trace levels of chemicals.
  • Is the exposure significant enough to matter? Many substances that are helpful or benign at low levels can sicken or kill at high levels. Accordingly, if the study involved high exposures, consumers should question whether it’s relevant to trace exposures through consumer products.
  • Is the study peer reviewed and published? Peer review is designed for an industry to self-regulate to reduce fraud and poor quality research. While it alone isn’t sufficient to assure a study is completely sound, consumers should be very skeptical of claims from studies that have not undergone any peer review.
  • Can other researchers reproduce the study results? Science is a long process of discovery that brings us closer to an answer as an issue is examined time and again. Part of that process involves repeating specific studies to see whether different scientists or teams of scientists can reproduce results of their peers’ or even their own research. If data is unavailable or other researchers have not been able to reproduce the result, the study is less compelling and may be discredited.

Find out more at SafeChemicalPolicy.org.

Post image for Beekeeper Speaks Out against Anti-Pesticide Campaigns

Anyone worried about honey bee survival should read the piece by Canadian beekeeper Lee Townsend in the Guelph Mercury newspaper. In recent years, beekeepers have seen some of their hives disappear without much explanation, a phenomenon referred to as”colony collapse disorder.”

Green activists have used this situation to randomly initiate bans on various pesticide products in the name of saving the bees, and their latest target is a class of chemicals called neonicotinoids. But we can’t help the bees if we continue to address the wrong causes. As Townsend points out, honey bees do just fine in many places where neonicotinoids are used, such as Canada. This suggests that neonicotinoids are the wrong target. Not only will bans divert our focus from finding the real cause or causes of colony collapse disorder, it will harm the ability of farmers to produce food.

Reading Townsend’s entire article on this topic is highly recommended, but here are some highlights that you shouldn’t miss:

No, the newest and most preventable threat comes from the mistaken alliance some beekeepers are forming with environmental activist groups who would turn farmers into enemies and drive a wedge between the farming and beekeeping communities that depend on each other for their livelihoods. …

Unfortunately, we [public officials and bee keepers] haven’t been able to work together to find out what is really happening, in part due to the insertion of special interest groups like the Sierra Club. There is no denying that neonics, like any other pesticide, can be toxic to honeybees if misapplied. But these special interest groups have scared beekeepers, the public, and the media into believing these products are far worse than actual scientific data indicates. …

In addition, these special interest groups fail to acknowledge there are colonies in Ontario and Quebec that are exposed to neonics on both corn and soy, with zero problems. And look at Western Canada. On the Prairies, 70 per cent of Canada’s colonies forage canola without issue. We are even exposed to corn and soy, and except for four beekeepers in Manitoba in 2013, there have been no issues there either.

Clearly there is need for further research, including the health status of these colonies prior to neonic exposure and clear records of the management practices of beekeepers. Most non-beekeepers don’t realize that just as farmers use pesticides to keep pests off their crops, beekeepers use pesticides inside the hive to control for infestations such as varroa mites. There is nothing wrong with this, if it is done properly. But beekeepers should keep this in mind when they link arms with activist groups with a larger anti-pesticide agenda.

Post image for JAMA’s Dangerous Hype: BPA and Cash Register Receipt Research Letter

This month’s issue of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) contains a “research letter” on a “study” conducted by researchers at Harvard University that says:

Human exposure to bisphenol A (BPA) has been associated with adverse health outcomes …we hypothesized that handling of thermal receipts significantly increases BPA exposure … In this pilot study,we observed an increase in urinary BPA concentrations after continuously handling receipts for 2 hours without gloves, but no significant increase when using gloves.

And given these “findings” the headlines declare:

Does this JAMA article really warrant such coverage? Not at all. It didn’t really find much of anything.

Basically, after two hours of constant handling of receipts that contain trace levels of BPA, the study subjects had slightly more trace levels of BPA in their urine. So what? Studies have shown that BPA passes out of the body quickly, before it can have any health effects.

The tiny increase of BPA and small study size make these “findings” pretty much meaningless. In the study, the mean BPA level measured in urine among 24 subjects increased from 1.8 ug/l to 5.8 ug/l before and after handling cash register receipts for two hours. That is, the increase was just 3 parts per billion! These levels are well below levels that regulators around the world have deemed safe. For example, the authors of the JAMA letter admit, “The peak level (5.8 g/L) was lower than that observed after canned soup consumption (20.8 g/L).”

The only reason, perhaps, JAMA publishes this “letter” is to attract news headlines. But lost in the resulting hype is the fact that BPA is used to protect public health. BPA resins that line food containers prevent development of dangerous pathogens that otherwise might produce deadly food-borne illnesses. Thanks to JAMA’s contribution to the anti-BPA hype, we may eventually see increased regulation of BPA and the loss of its life-saving and enhancing benefits.

george-washingtonHappy Washington’s birthday, everyone! Although the holiday was on Monday, George Washington’s actual date of birth is tomorrow, February 22, in the year 1732.

And one of the many ways to celebrate Washington is to reflect on his pioneering entrepreneurship. That’s right, the father of our country was also one of the first of America’s many visionary entrepreneurs who was largely self-made. As I write in National Review, “Washington’s background wasn’t exactly poor, but he was not as wealthy as many of his contemporaries among the Founders. His father died when he was eleven, and the family lacked money to give him a formal education.”

But Washington learned not only the value of perseverance but of innovation. He abandoned Mount Vernon’s main cash crop of tobacco to cultivate wheat. Then, “pioneering the integration of related enterprises, he became a manufacturer of two products from his crop: flour and distilled whiskey.” As I note, Mount Vernon has reconstructed Washington’s flour mill and whiskey distillery, and they are definitely worth a visit!

Today, we are still a nation of entrepreneurs, but entrepreneurs have much red tape to deal with. One area of bipartisan agreement for barriers that need to be eased is in the area of equity crowdfunding. It is legal to raise funds for music, movies or other ventures on crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, but only if funders of these projects are offered nothing of real value. Any promise of profit sharing or potential return on investment trigger the same securities laws that apply to Fortune 500 companies.

The Jumpstart Our Business Startups (JOBS) Act signed by President Obama in 2012 was supposed to change this. And indeed the JOBS Act has made it easier for small and midsize companies to go public by delaying onerous provisions of Dodd-Frank and Sarbanes-Oxley for most new initial public offerings (IPOS), spurring the U.S. IPO market. But unfortunately its promise remains elusive for the smallest of entrepreneurs and the ordinary investors who could benefit. The Securities and Exchange Commission proposed a severely restrictive rule for crowdfunding that, as I wrote in CEI’s comments to the agency, “may cost an entrepreneur as much as $39,000 to raise $100,000 through crowdfunding” by the SEC’s own estimate.

I pointed out that equity crowdfunding is not at all radical given the other electronic transaction we engage in every day. “Investors buying the smallest portions of the smallest businesses face more ‘protections’ than if they pay thousands more for a business outright.”

And we should remember that crowdfunding really began while Washington was serving as president in 1790, when merchants and investor who got together in Philadelphia’s taverns and coffee shops formed the Philadelphia Stock Exchange in those very watering holes. Crowdfunding, minus computers but with the (physical) social networking, was how the first stock exchange in the U.S. was formed.

Happy 282nd, Mr. President! May we restore freedom for entrepreneurs following in your footsteps.

Post image for West Virginia Chemical Spill and Formaldehyde Hype

In this final post on my series related to the January 9 chemical spill in West Virgina, I address wrongheaded claims that the spill also exposed Charleston residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde.

A few weeks after the spill, West Virginia Environmental Quality Board Vice Chairman Scott Simonton alleged that final traces of crude MCHM are breaking down and exposing residents to dangerous levels of formaldehyde. “I can guarantee that citizens in this valley are, at least in some instances, breathing formaldehyde,” Simonton told legislators at a public hearing. Simonton said that he found formaldehyde in three water samples from a Charleston, West Virginia, restaurant. But West Virginia’s Bureau for Public Health Commissioner Dr. Letitia Tierney called these claims “totally unfounded,” as well as “misleading and irresponsible,” for good reason. As she explained to reporters, Simonton is not part of any official investigation related to the spill, and she cannot validate his tests. In any case, she noted that the MCHM would need to be heated to 500° Fahrenheit before it would break down into formaldehyde. Others have offered similar criticisms of Simonton’s assertions.

In any case, traces of formaldehyde are not alarming or particularly risky. Humans produce it simply by breathing because it is a byproduct of respiration. It is also released through cooking and is relatively high when one cooks such things as Shiitake mushrooms. Competitive Enterprise Institute Adjunct Scholar Dana Joel Gattuso points out in her study on chemicals and cosmetics that Shiitake mushrooms contain 100-400 parts per million of formaldehyde, some of which is released as a gas when mushrooms are cooked. But no one is sounding alarms about Shiitake mushrooms as a source of formaldehyde!

Some studies show that formaldehyde produces relatively mild acute symptoms—such as eye irritation—at about 800 ppb, while others indicate that extra sensitive individuals might experience such effects when exposed to 100 ppb. In comparison, Simonton said he found water in the West Virginia restaurants with levels of 32 and 33 ppb, which is hardly worrisome. Prolonged exposure to relatively high levels of the chemical may have health effects, which is an issue for workers using concentrated amounts of formaldehyde. But it has nothing to do with this chemical spill and any trace levels of formaldehyde found in drinking water.

Post image for Uncertainty and the West Virginia Chemical Spill

In the aftermath of the January 9 chemical spill in West Virginia, environmental activists claim: “More than two weeks after the spill, the answer to most questions about the spill and the chemicals in it is either that ‘we don’t know’ or that the information is incomplete.” Green groups make such claims to capitalize on the fact that everything in life has some uncertainty. But that does not mean that Charleston residents should live in fear because, as I explained in prior posts in this series on the West Virginia Chemical Spill, the long-term health effects are negligible.

Unfortunately, much of the media hysteria about the chemical spill and its risks are partly the result of a communication failure among public officials. In a politically charged situation, officials failed to place this risk in perspective. Moreover, cautious researchers always qualify their findings by acknowledging the reality of uncertainty. Nothing is 100-percent safe, and uncertainly in every aspect of life is unavoidable. In this case and others, the best we can expect is relative safety. Unfortunately, media and activists have not focused on relative safety, and instead harped on the qualifiers and uncertainties, blowing the risk out of proportion and generating needless fears.

To its credit, the CDC moved quickly to determine what level of the chemical in the drinking water would pose negligible risks. It set a 1 part-per-million standard as safe based on rodent tests applying numerous safety factors akin to EPA standards for other drinking water contaminants. It then applied additional safety factors to come up with a level that is likely hundreds or thousands of times lower than what is actually “safe.”

But rather than emphasize the low risks, CDC researchers, who want to be scientifically accurate, also communicated the unavoidable reality of uncertainty — and that is where the media and greens placed emphasis. For example, National Public Radio reported that CDC chief medical researcher Vikas Kapil acknowledged, “‘that there was very little information to go on.’ Still, he says, drinking water that meets the CDC guideline of one part per million is ‘generally not likely to be associated with any adverse health effects.”

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