A System of Ethics for Food

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A System of Ethics for Food? The Precautionary Principle

Cedric Garland, Dr.P.H., F.A.C.E.

Adjunct Professor, Family and Preventive Medicine

October 15, 2003

What follows is a synopsis of the discussion that followed Dr. Garland’s Oct. 15th, 2003 presentation. It aims to summarize the range of views expressed following his talk. Not all of these views represent Dr. Garland’s own thinking on the topic. Nor of course do they necessarily represent of views of everyone present at the discussion. Slides of the talk itself may be accessed at


The Precautionary Principle

The Precautionary Principle is the principle that actions taken to protect the environment and human health should take precedence over implementation of new but untried technologies, even if there is not definitive proof that harm will be done. (The definition according to the United Nations, as discussed at the Conference on Environment and Development can be found at cid.harvard.edu. See also comments on the Precautionary Principle at .)

Examples favoring the Precautionary Principle:

• Studies have found a link between consumption of nitrites in preserved meats and the incidence of gastric cancer (Paik et al. Int J of Epidemiol 2001; 30:181-182)

• Studies also show a connection between maternal consumption of cured meats and the risk of pediatric brain tumors (Pogoda JM, Preston-Martin S. Public Health Nutr. 2001 Apr; 4(2): 183-9.) 

A System of Ethics

Is the food industry in need of a professional ethics or “oath”? Advantages of devising and adopting a system of ethics might include:

• Shifting industry perspective to incorporate a concern for human well-being rather than (solely) profit

• Providing universal guidelines for ethical handling of food

• Enhancement of the professional reputation of the industry and promotion of consumer trust

• Promotion of self-respect, solidarity and peer support.

One model for developing a professional code/oath for the food industry might be The Hippocratic Oath (Geneva Version, 1948 rev. 1968) used in medicine.


The Precautionary Principle

• Such a principle is a good idea, but in practice is too simple because it is impossible to prove a negative, that is, to establish the absence of (any) harm.

• If this principle were applied evenly across every industry, nothing would ever get done.

• Where do you draw the line regarding “what is safe”? How does one weigh the risk of a particular technology vs. its possible or probable benefits? For example, how do we weigh the costs of a technology that can benefit a million people, but at the cost of a slight increase in cancer risk in the local population? Is this an acceptable “cost” or not?

• What is the value of a single human life? Medical practitioners make decisions like this every day based on a cost-benefit analysis (ex. recommend a colonoscopy every five years instead of every year), but there is no clear answer to this question. Despite the actions taken by some, it is impossible to place a defensible dollar value on a human life. One of the reasons is that such an assessment would be undesirable unless it was assumed that the dollars saved would be used to save the lives or health of others.

o The Precautionary Principle addresses conditions of uncertainty. The more certain one is that harm will be done, the higher the human cost.

• If a company is going to reap financial and other benefits based on potentially harmful actions, should they be held financially responsible for resulting sickness and deaths? Is such a cost one that should be factored into the “cost of doing business”?

o On the other hand, a company could also ask why it should have to pay for harm done when their technologies may ultimately save many lives and create a better society? A similar argument could be made for any negligent act, if it occurred as part of promotion of an organization with social benefit.

Should there be a code of ethics for food?

NO, because:

• An oath is not simple enough – a code of ethics needs to be spelled out in black and white

• An oath will not necessarily change a person’s behavior. It comes down to the integrity of the individual – an unethical person will behave in unethical ways regardless of an oath

• An oath is about a relationship between people. In medicine, doctors interact face-to-face with patients, but people in the food industry do not – their consumers are the anonymous public, so there is no direct sense of personal responsibility

• Who would take the oath in the food industry? The food scientists? The company CEOs? What about restaurant chefs?

o The food industry is a trade rather than a profession. It seems that a set of laws or regulations is more appropriate than an oath

YES, because:

• There is much that is not covered by rules and regulations. An oath has value beyond laws

• An oath is about trust. Since our food is often prepared by strangers who would not necessarily share the harm from unsafe or tainted food, we need to have this extra assurance of safety that an oath might provide.

• There are many questionable practices in the food industry that need to be addressed

• An oath would define outrageous behavior as unacceptable, and would provide another level of constraint against dangerous adulteration of food.

• Even though the food industry plays a key role in the health of the general population, its primary motivation is financial gain.

What should a food industry oath include?

Note: Not all points were discussed by the group

• “I won’t produce food that I wouldn’t feed to my own family”

o This should be the golden rule of food production

• “I will do no harm”

o This implies that doing nothing is neutral

o We are all obligated to do no harm. An oath has to go beyond this. Legally one can be prosecuted for doing nothing.

• “I will consider the risk vs. the benefit”

• “All my actions will be guided by the idea that they should benefit the health of the consumer”

o What if the consumer wants something that is not healthy – such as french fries, or a cheeseburger? Wouldn’t commitment to “benefit the health of the consumer” require not producing “unhealthy” foodstuffs or regarding such production as “unethical”?

o When it comes to food choices, it is ultimately up to the consumer to decide what they want to eat. Perhaps the food needs to be clearly and explicitly labeled so the consumer can make an informed decision

• “I will not make any false claims for my product”

Summary: A Code of Ethics Oath similar to the oath of the medical profession for the food industry would be a step in the right direction, although certainly not a panacea. Such a code of ethics and oath could help to identify individuals and organizations that are unethical and define adulteration of food that is ethically outrageous but not necessarily illegal.[pic]


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