Citizens of the 15-nation European Union enjoy a generally healthy lifestyle, but obesity is on the rise, and 20 percent of the EU's inhabitants continue to smoke. Still, the health issue that most alarms Europeans is the prospect of eating genetically modified foods, despite the absence of any proof that they are actually unsafe.
Since 1998, there has been a moratorium in the European Union on the sale of new biotech foods, in response to fears about the possible health risks. But now, in an effort to avoid a trade battle with the United States, which maintains that those fears are unfounded, the EU is preparing to lift the moratorium, and replace it with tougher labeling requirements for genetically altered products.
Under the new rules, all products, including animal feed, vegetable oils, seeds and byproducts containing more than 0.9 percent genetically altered material will have to be clearly identified as having been produced from genetically modified organisms.
EU Environment Commissioner Margot Wallstrom says the new measures will give consumers an informed choice.
"This is a matter of building confidence," she said. "And we are trying to build confidence for individual consumers and for farmers in Europe. And we do that by ensuring that we have a regulatory framework, which looks at both the potential benefits and risks of GM products."
The United States says the labeling requirement is unfair to producers of GM foods, most of whom are American. But public sentiment in Europe, successfully stoked by environmental groups, is fiercely opposed to genetically altered food. GM products are rarely seen on grocery shelves, and that is how most consumers want it.
In contrast to Americans, Europeans regard tinkering with the genetic makeup of crops to make them faster growing and more resilient as heretical. In such countries as France and Italy, revulsion at the mere idea of eating genetically modified food runs especially deep.
A series of food scandals - such as the outbreak of mad cow disease in Britain and its spread to other European nations, or the discovery of dioxin-infested chickens in Belgium - have severely undermined consumers' faith in the safety of their food, as well as their confidence in scientists and public officials, many of whom asserted at the time that there was no risk to public health.
EU Commissioner Wallstrom says GM manufacturers have to prove to European consumers that their products are both healthy and safe for the environment.
"There is no shortcut to establish this confidence in consumers and farmers in Europe," she said. "You have to demonstrate that the kind of products that you put on the market [are] safe for human beings and [do not] pose a risk to, for example, the rich bio-diversity that we have in Europe."
Although there is no compelling evidence so far that genetically altered food is harmful, anti-GM activists say it is not known whether the food is harmful in the long term. And it is precisely that uncertainty, which worries Europeans.
The British government recently published a report concluding that health risks from current GM products are very low, but that some uncertainties remain. David King, the government's chief scientific adviser, says crop approval should be granted on a case-by-case basis.
"This generation of GM crops, we would conclude, are low-risk to human health; therefore, safe to eat," he said. "When we look at future generations of GM crops, we will have to see that the regulatory process makes sure that we can retain the same degree of confidence for human health."
The study, chaired by Mr. King, found no verifiable ill effects to human or animal health from more than seven years of eating GM food and feed in North America. But opponents of GM say detailed research to prove food safety has not been carried out.
Former British Environment Minister Michael Meacher, commenting on the King report, says there has been too little research into how GM foods behave inside the human body.
"They say that there is little or no risk in GM foods, but they haven't done any of the testing, which will establish whether it is true or not," he said. "And until there has been comprehensive health and environmental testing of GM crops, we should not commercialize GM crops in this country."
So, the bottom line is that there is no definitive proof that GM foods are damaging to human health, but no definitive proof that they are safe. Most scientists agree that GM foods are probably safe. But most also admit that they cannot be absolutely sure of that.
The choice whether to eat or not to eat GM food is thus left to the consumer. And so far, European consumers show no sign of budging from their refusal to touch the stuff.
This is part of VOA's series of reports on World Health