Jill E. Hobbs, William A. Kerr, and Stuart J. Smyth
University of Saskatchewan, Canada

Establishing tolerance levels for the presence of unwanted materials that may inadvertently become co-mingled with products that are acceptable in markets is a problem for regulators that requires arbitrary lines in the sand to be drawn. While the degree of tolerance is ultimately an arbitrary value—because the full information necessary to make a non-arbitrary decision is never forthcoming—decision making can be informed by theory, existing information, and where gaps in information lie. Where tolerances have been established that do not appear to have been informed, they should be re-examined if for no other reason than they may impose unnecessary costs on society. Zero tolerance has been imposed by regulators in a number of jurisdictions for unwanted materials that could co-mingle with products acceptable in the market. One such case is the European Union’s (EU) policy of zero tolerance for co-mingling of unapproved genetically modified (GM) materials with agri-food products. This article uses two case studies related to the regulation of GM materials in the EU to examine the implications of zero tolerance. While the topic of the regulation of modern biotechnology has been the subject of much debate in the EU and globally, there appears to be little discussion of zero tolerance. Given that zero tolerance imposes considerable externalities on non-EU agri-food sectors as well as in the EU itself, it may be time to re-examine zero tolerance in an informed way.

Key words: Food safety, genetic modification, international trade, supply chains, zero tolerance.