Return to Blog March 22, 2023

Food Regulations in Europe vs. the US


US and European food standards are more aligned than most consumers believe. Each respective regulatory body requires pre-market testing, labeling and safety guidance levels.

In other words, these two markets have much more in common than they differ – and that’s excellent news for suppliers, manufacturers and consumers.

Consistently High Food Standards in Both Markets

A study by the Global Food Security Index (GFSI) conducted an in-depth study of more than 100 countries to evaluate each nation’s food safety standards. The results ranked seven European and two North American countries in the top 10, with Japan being the only Asian country to make the list. Despite different food safety standards across the globe, these markets consistently produced, manufactured and provided high-quality products.

Food Quality in Europe vs. America: Who Makes the Rules?

The US and Europe both have exemplary food regulatory agencies that protect consumers and communicate changing standards, regulations and best practices to suppliers and manufacturers.

US Food and Drug Administration

In the US, food regulations are established and enforced by the FDA. The agency is responsible for protecting public health across several categories.

The FDA’s expansive purview includes:

  • Cosmetics
  • Human pharmaceutical products
  • Animal pharmaceutical products
  • Medical devices
  • Tobacco products
  • Human food
  • Animal food and nutrition
  • Electronics that emit radiation

The agency is currently armed with an $8.4 billion budget, which marks an astounding 34% increase in total funding from 2022. The increase is designed to improve food safety and modernize medical device safety programs. The FDA overlaps in certain areas with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), whose jurisdiction includes meat, poultry and eggs.

European Food Safety Authority

In Europe, the EFSA has the daunting task of aligning and enforcing food regulations for all 27 member nations of the European Union. That’s a key differentiator between organizations; the US relies on a federal entity, while the EFSA isn’t strictly associated with a single government. That creates both advantages and disadvantages that certainly shape its effectiveness.

How Do US and European Food Standards Differ?

The US and Europe differ in two key areas.

One is that specific food ingredient standards, particularly those surrounding possible allergens, preservatives and additives, are tested and analyzed differently. The second is that there’s a notable departure in food labeling.

Food Additive Guidelines: More Stringent in Europe

In the US, the FDA takes a notably more hands-off approach to testing and inspections, often allowing new food ingredients unless proven harmful. This includes ingredients, for example, GMOs, growth hormones and chemical preservatives.

In Europe, the EFSA requires additives to be proven safe before approval and has banned the use of growth hormones and several chemical additives.

These differing philosophies lead to certain additives being allowed in the US and banned in Europe. For instance, these eight ingredients are commonly used in the US but not in Europe:

  • rBGH (rBST) – Growth hormone
  • Ractopamine – Increases lean muscle in animal stock
  • Potassium bromate – Makes baked goods whiter and increases volume
  • Brominate vegetable oil – Used to keep flavors from separating in beverages
  • Olestra – Fat substitute
  • Azodicarbonamide – Used to bleach flour
  • Coloring agents – Red #40, yellow #6, yellow #5, blue #1
  • BHA and BHT – Preservatives

European Food Labels vs. American

The European approach to food additives is visible. The EFSA assigns a 3- or 4-digit code to every food additive, and that number must be included on food labels if it’s used in a product. The EFSA believes this system makes it easier for consumers to look up and memorize specific additives.

In the US, those same additives are required to be printed out in full. Interestingly, food packaging with only E numbers is prohibited in US markets. This regulation is why brands can’t meet one or both standards with a single line of packaging.

Both markets require high-risk allergens be listed on food labels. The US requires labeling of eight allergens while Europe notes 14.

Is Food in Europe Healthier? Safer?

There isn’t enough evidence to make sweeping claims on how US and European food standards impact consumer health. This difficult comparison is made even more challenging when accounting for portion size, lifestyle habits and other variables. Food manufacturers, regulators and consumers share a vested interest in high-quality, safe and nutritious foods. It’s an evolving process and we’re committed to doing our part.

Navigate International Food Markets with Confidence

Tilley Distribution’s global capabilities push our team to operate at the forefront of a dynamic regulatory environment. Our experienced team has a wealth of industry knowledge that positions us to meet the most pressing challenges faced by our food manufacturing clients. See what we can do for you; contact a Tilley representative today to learn more.