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US-EU food trade rules in play

Jasper SkyJune 19, 2014

The rules governing food imports are up for grabs in US-EU free trade negotiations. The US wants Europe to base its assessment of genetically-modified crops and hormone-treated meats on 'sound science'.

wheat kernels and logo
Image: Imago

If Tom Vilsack has his way, Europeans will soon join Americans in dining on meat from cattle whose growth was sped up using growth hormones, and eating grains genetically modified to survive herbicides and pesticides. And they won't have any easy way of knowing they're doing so.

Tom Vilsack is the US Agriculture Secretary. He was in Brussels on Tuesday (17.06.2014), pushing for the European Union to eliminate "non-scientific barriers" to trade in agricultural products between the world's two wealthiest economic regions.

"Science is a common language… we will be working towards making sure that whatever agreements are reached, they are consistent with sound science", he said.

But what is "sound science"? And why is the US insisting that hormone-treated beef and pork are safe, or opposing proposals to label genetically modified organisms (GMOs) in supermarket products?

Industry lobbyists provide trade negotiators with talking points

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), also called Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA), is a set of bilateral trade negotiations between the two biggest economic regions in the world, the United States and the European Union, that aims to eliminate all barriers to trade and investment. One aspect of this ambitious agenda is harmonization of the rules governing the food supply.

In trade negotiations, politicians make every effort to secure terms of trade advantageous to their own country's influential industries. US farm and food industry lobby groups have a lot of money riding on the outcome of TTIP negotiations. Teams of lobbyists in Washington have full-time jobs making sure Secretary Vilsack knows how they think he should represent American farm industry interests.

Blessing or Curse? - The EU-US free trade agreement

In Washington, it's not unusual for corporate lobby groups to write draft legislation for Congress, or for Secretaries (the American term for federal cabinet ministers) to directly adopt lobby groups' talking points for their own speeches. The American Farm Bureau Federation's (AFBF) is a particularly influential lobby group. According to the AFBF, "continuing barriers to the export of US beef, pork and poultry, along with the slow approval process for biotech products, are major areas of interest" in the TTIP negotiations.

The "sound science" talking point appears prominently in the publications of various US agricultural sector lobby groups, including the AFBF, concerning food supply regulations in general and the TTIP negotiations in particular.

A look around the AFBF's website reveals that the AFBF seems preoccupied with weakening or reversing various pieces of US federal legislation concerned with environmental conservation, animal welfare, farm labor protections, or food safety. For example, an AFBF position paper expresses strong opposition to any government attempts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Excerpt: "Farm Bureau does not support any actions or policy that federal agencies could adopt,or the utilization of any existing authority, to regulate emissions of GHGs." Presumably the AFBF, in direct disagreement with the US National Academy of Sciences, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, and the overwhelming majority of climate scientists, believes its dismissive stance on greenhouse gas emissions to be based on "sound science".

Pigs in transit
The EU is defending its import ban of hormone-treated meats, claiming science hasn't proved it's safe for consumers.Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Are genetically modified organisms safe to eat?

Consumer rights groups in the US as well as EU are pushing for labeling of GMO foods, so that consumers can make their own informed decision on whether to eat them. Secretary Vilsack and the AFBF oppose GMO labeling because putting a label on a foodstuff containing a genetically modified product "risks sending a wrong impression that this was a safety issue," Vilsack said in Brussels, echoing the US farm lobby's position on GMOs.

Tom Vilsack's very reasonable-sounding "sound science" talking point is a catch-phrase rooted in the US food industry's opposition to Europe's more cautious, risk-averse approach to regulating the food supply chain. The key concept is the 'precautionary principle', which Europe applies in developing regulations, but the US does not apply.

Monsanto GMO maize
The US is opposed to labeling foodstuffs containing genetically-modified ingredients.Image: AFP/Getty Images

An AFBF position paper on TTIP says that "both the US and EU adhere to the World Trade Organization's SPS Agreement, which states that measures taken to protect human, animal or plant life or health should be science-based and applied only to the extent necessary to protect life or health. The US follows a risk-assessment approach for food safety, while the EU is additionally guided by the 'precautionary principle', which holds that where the possibility of a harmful effect exists, non-scientific risk management strategies may be adopted. The EU has made the 'precautionary principle' the focus of its approach to risk management in the SPS area. The US views the use of the 'precautionary principle' as inconsistent with the WTO SPS Agreement and as a basis for scientifically unjustified barriers to trade."

Regulatory approach: Proven risk of harm versus precautionary principle

What all this technical jargon reduces to is this: When US farm lobbyists push for "sound science" as the basis for food supply trade rules, what they mean by this term is that they want Europe to eliminate all restrictions on imports of food from the US, and to adopt a US-style food supply regulatory regime, stripped of the precautionary principle.

And they want to make it difficult for European consumers to identify whether what they're eating is food that was produced using practices EU consumers are well known to abhor, like GMO maize, chlorine-washed chicken, and meat from animals treated with growth hormone.

Organic groceries in a store in Germany
Organic groceries are popular in Germany, and consumers don't want the rules to be softened.Image: picture-alliance / Rainer Hackenberg

American farm and food lobbies claim that these products and practices are harmless. Europeans aren't sure that's the case; they're a good deal more conservative about what finds its way into their food supply chain. Whether European or US attitudes and values prevail in the food and agriculture trade provisions of TTIP remains to be seen. One thing is clear: The outcome will affect nearly everyone in Europe.