Talks expose continuing gulf in U.S., EU food safety methods

By Jim Webster

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, May 28, 2014 - The United States and European Union opened talks on the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) nearly a year ago, deeply conflicted over their respective approaches to food safety, agricultural biotechnology and the names of certain foods. Last week, after five rounds of negotiating, they gave no outward sign of agreement on any of those issues.

Differences over how Washington and Brussels treat food safety were illuminated quickly last Wednesday when a dozen food and farm trade organizations - among some 75 interest groups from both sides of the Atlantic - presented their “wish lists” to U.S. and EU negotiators in Arlington, Virginia.

First at bat in the agriculture lineup was interim CEO Jim Hodges of the American Meat Institute (AMI), who said the agreement should reinforce the World Trade Organization's sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) rules mandating the least restrictive possible risk management measures. “It must be based on science, not on the precautionary principle or cultural preferences,” he said.

Hodges was especially critical of EU non-tariff barriers such as a ban on U.S. “beef raised with growth-promoting technology,” its refusal to accept “numerous pathogen reduction treatments used to assure safety of poultry,” and its ban on ractopamine and other barriers to pork trade.

Lets Talk Food

His comments got a rapid pushback from Lorenzo Terzi, the European Commission's chief negotiator for SPS issues. “[T]here is no margin of maneuver for the U.S. to be able to export beef obtained from animals treated with hormones,” Terzi said. “We have science that this should not take place.” EU negotiators have no flexibility to accept a change in its position, he said.

Terzi's assertion was reinforced by Chief EU Negotiator Ignacio Garcia-Bercero in a State Department briefing at Friday's windup of the talks. “Hormone-treated beef is prohibited under EU law, and certainly we would not envisage any changes of our legislation,” he said.

Objections from U.S. meat exporters to EU bans on poultry treated in chlorine solution to reduce pathogens, a common practice in U.S. plants, led to an exchange between a French Public Radio reporter and Chief U.S. Negotiator Dan Mullaney. “In Europe in general and in France in particular, the symbol of the fear is American chicken with bleach,” the reporter said.

“The United States has no intention of forcing Europeans to eat anything a European does not want to eat,” Mullaney said. “There's actually no such thing as bleached chicken,” he said. “There are certainly certain processes that undergo tests and risk assessment to see whether they're safe. Both of us do that before food products are entered into the food chain.”

Exchanges over agricultural biotechnology and the question of extending EU “geographic indications,” or GIs, which restrict the use of food names, did not indicate movement toward agreement but were less confrontational than those over how food safety regulations apply to meat.

 

Floyd Gaibler, director of trade policy and biotechnology at the U.S. Grains Council, did not advocate changing EU biotechnology law but called for the EU to follow its procedures for approval of biotech traits. “We need regulatory harmonization with synchronous approvals and agreement on a protocol for low-level presence of biotech traits in grain,” he said Wednesday. “EU approvals need to coincide with approvals in the U.S., Brazil and Argentina.”

Pointing out in Friday's briefing that more than 50 biotech traits have been authorized by the EU, Bercero said the approval law would not change but “that does not mean that we are not always ready to look into how the rules are applied in practice. But as far as issues which touch upon our food safety legislation I think it's very difficult to imagine that any democratic country could go to their parliaments and suggest that a food safety law can be changed because of a trade agreement.”

Mullaney agreed with Bercero's assessment of the biotech situation, saying that the U.S. concern “has mostly been with how the rule operates and not the regulation itself.” He said TTIP is focused on “building on the WTO obligations to base measures on science and risk assessment.”

The EU hope of getting U.S approval of its GI regime, as applied to common names such as feta and parmesan cheese that have become generic internationally, was resisted by the International Dairy Foods Association (IDFA), National Milk Producers Federation (NMPF) and U.S. Dairy Export Council (USDEC). Separately, the Teamsters Union offered its opposition to the plan.

IDFA Senior Group Vice President Clay Hough said that the EU's attempt to “claw back” the exclusive use of now-common food names “does not belong in a market opening agreement.” He pointed out that 55 U.S. senators and 177 members of the House had written negotiators to oppose added GI rules. “NMPF and USDEC vehemently disagree that the EU's typical approach to GIs has any place in an effort aimed at expanding trade and removing barriers to competition,” said Shawna Morris, the organizations' vice president for trade policy. She and Hough proposed that the GI question be addressed in separate negotiations rather than in the TTIP.

The EU has sought to expand GIs for protectionist purposes “in a gross violation of the WTO,” said Tom LaFaille, Wine Institute vice president and international trade counsel. “The EU sells seven times more wine to the U.S. than the U.S. sells to the EU,” he said. “The U.S. does not restrict imports, while in contrast the EU regulations seriously restrict [our wine] with arbitrary standards.”

NMPF and USDEC also would like the agreement to rein in the “maze of licensing and certification requirements” that obstructs U.S. dairy product exports to the EU, Morris said. U.S. exporters face “a constantly moving target to access the EU market,” she said.

Cranberry industry consultant Bryant Christie's Matt Lantz called on the EU to eliminate duties on imports of U.S. cranberries as it is has for those from Canada and Chile. Those duties hamper a $212 million export market, which accounts for more than 30 percent of the U.S. cranberry crop. California's Blue Diamond Growers asked for elimination of EU duties on almonds imported from the U.S.

American Seed Trade Association CEO Andrew W. LaVigne said ASTA and the European Seed Association jointly support harmonization of phytosanitary standards that often disrupt seed movement and agreement on a common protocol for sampling and testing for biotech traits. Doug Nelson, senior adviser for trade, intellectual property and strategic issues for CropLife America, advocated an agreement that required the same risk assessment procedures of both parties. A 2009 change in EU pesticide regulations that accepts risk as the only criteria, ignoring benefits, likely contravenes its obligations under WTO agreements, he said. “It is vital that no TTIP agreement ignores legally binding WTO rules,” Nelson added.

The EU view of food safety regulation was endorsed by several U.S. activist groups that have long advocated the use of an undefined “precautionary principle” rather than the established risk assessment practice employed by U.S. regulators and endorsed by most U.S. industry.

“It will be politically impossible to sell an agreement that rolls back EU food safety standards as industry in the U.S. wants to do,” said Bill Waren, a Friends of the Earth trade analyst. “If global meat and feed industry interests have their way, the U.S. will lower its safety standards for imported beef, leading to an increased risk of mad cow disease in this country.”

Kathy Ozer, executive director of the National Family Farm Coalition, worried that an agreement might override state and local decisions. The recent ban on biotech crops adopted by two Oregon counties and Vermont's biotech food label law “should not be undermined by TTIP,” she said. The kind of TTIP favored by U.S. negotiators and industry “could threaten hard-won food safety and environmental protection,” said Debbie Barker, international director of the Center for Food Safety. “Many believe that the central aim of TTIP is to dismantle food safety regulations that get in the way of corporate profit,” she said. “CFS rejects any lowering of food safety standards.”

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