The Precautionary Principle and/or Risk Assessment in World Trade Organization Decisions: A Possible Role for Risk Perception


*Address correspondence to Bernard D. Goldstein, Dean's Office, University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health, A624 Crabtree Hall, 130 DeSoto St., Pittsburgh, PA 15261, USA.


Risk analysis has been recognized and validated in World Trade Organization (WTO) decision processes. In recent years the precautionary principle has been proposed as an additional or alternative approach to standard risk assessment. The precautionary principle has also been advocated by some who see it as part of postmodern democracy in which more power is given to the public on health and safety matters relative to the judgments of technocrats. A more cynical view is that the precautionary principle is particularly championed by the European Community as a means to erect trade barriers. The WTO ruling against the European Community's trade barrier against beef from hormone-treated cattle seemed to support the use of risk assessment and appeared to reject the argument that the precautionary principle was a legitimate basis for trade barriers. However, a more recent WTO decision on asbestos contains language suggesting that the precautionary principle, in the form of taking into account public perception, may be acceptable as a basis for a trade barrier. This decision, if followed in future WTO trade disputes, such as for genetically modified foods, raises many issues central to the field of risk analysis. It is too early to tell whether the precautionary principle will become accepted in WTO decisions, either as a supplement or a substitute for standard risk assessment. But it would undermine the value of the precautionary principle if this principle were misused to justify unwarranted trade barriers.