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Critics Say Food Safety Standards Could Be Threatened by U.S./EU Trade Agreement

Some call it the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (T-TIP) agreement. Others call it the Trans-Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA).

Either way, it’s the trade deal currently under negotiation between the U.S. and the European Union (EU) for which the fifth round of talks start next week in Arlington, VA.

While proponents of the agreement say it will grow economies and increase jobs, consumer advocates argue that hasn’t been the case with the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA). Instead, they worry about food safety, environmental, public health and labor standards being undermined as “trade barriers.”

The content of the negotiation talks is not made public, and even members of Congress have only limited access to relevant documents. There are, however, about 600 “corporate advisers” who have been allowed to review and comment on negotiation texts.

Under previous trade negations, such as NAFTA, texts were made available after each round of talks. The Center for Food Safety (CFS) and other consumer advocates are calling for a revival of this precedent.

This lack of access to texts has many people irked, and, as a result of the relative secrecy, the little we do know about T-TIP has come from leaked documents or position statements put out by industry.

One of the goals noted in a leaked EU position paper was for parties to “engage in such cooperation without unnecessary restrictions, including any institutional, statutory or other barriers/ inflexibilities.” It also calls for the creation of a Regulatory Cooperation Council (RCC) to have oversight in the regulatory systems of the U.S. and the EU.

At a briefing to Congress on Thursday, Gynnie Robnett, Outreach Coordinator at the Center for Effective Government and coordinator of the Coalition for Sensible Safeguards, said the first goal would place a “high burden of proof on governments to show the necessity of particular regulations,” and she said she thinks of the RCC as an international version of the U.S. government’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).

Food Issues As Trade Barriers

Another speaker at the briefing, CFS International Director Debbie Barker, said that “food issues under negotiations provide an … entrée point to really demonstrate to people that trade agreements are really relevant to their lives every day. It affects the food they eat and that they feed their children.”

She went on to say that food issues in T-TIP “are extremely contentious. This is probably the area in T-TIP that has the potential to stop the agreement.”

A CFS bulletin released Wednesday and authored by Barker explains that the proposed agreement is more focused on trade barriers than quotas and tariffs.

“Many analysts believe that a central aim of the negotiations is to dismantle many food safety regulations that corporations view as impediments to trade and profitmaking,” the report states.

It also lists the effects these barriers could have on food issues on each side of the Atlantic. Because the EU uses the precautionary principle as its regulatory foundation, it has more to lose from T-TIP in terms of food and farming issues.

In referring to the principle, the 1992 Rio Declaration on Environment and Development states: “Where there are threats of serious or irreversible damage, lack of full scientific certainty shall not be used as a reason for postponing cost-effective measures to prevent environmental degradation.”

The precautionary principle “sets the bar higher for safety standards” in Europe, Barker told Food Safety News.

So, according to the CFS report, the EU’s bans on GE crops, meat from livestock treated with non-therapeutic antibiotics and growth hormones, ractopamine, and chemically washed poultry, plus standards for things such as animal welfare, organic equivalency, chemicals and nanotechnology, would all be in jeopardy under T-TIP.

In the U.S., standards for feed ingredients that include ruminant materials known to transmit mad cow disease could be relaxed, the zero-tolerance policy for Listeria and E. coli could be eliminated, GE-labeling initiatives across the U.S. could be threatened if the EU lowers its labeling requirements, “Buy American” policies could be on their way out, and Europe’s milk standards could be recognized as equivalent to U.S. Grade A.

“Yes, we’re concerned about citizen rights and the sovereignty of other countries, but, in effect, that also makes it harder for us in the U.S. then to be rallying or campaigning for higher standards here,” Barker told Food Safety News. “Once something gets set on an international level or in a trade agreement, the domestic regulatory agency can say that would be trade illegal.

“If we lower standards elsewhere, we are also, in effect, inhibiting chances of us raising our standards.”

These barriers to trade have the potential to lead to a situation like the current dispute Canada has with the U.S. regarding country-of-origin labeling.

“When you think of the time, the expense, the energy that our country is having to do in international tribunals to defend what should be domestically led standards — that, in itself, regardless of the outcome — is troubling,” Barker said.

Regulatory Mechanisms

“TTIP is not a conventional trade agreement; it’s a regulatory agreement,” said Baskut Tuncak, an attorney with the environmental health program at the Center for International Environmental Law, during the congressional briefing. “It’s a regulatory agreement that’s designed to prevent differences between the U.S. and EU, including the states of the U.S. and federal government.”

A major concern for advocates is the proposed Investor-State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) mechanism in T-TIP that gives foreign investors and corporations the opportunity to challenge sovereign governments on their domestic policies outside of a normal domestic judicial system.

And it’s not just a theoretical fear, they say. During the congressional briefing and in her report, Barker referenced the case of the U.S.-based Ethyl Corporation suing Canada in 1997 for banning a toxic gasoline additive called MMT.

The Canadian government ultimately settled the case, repealed their ban, paid $13 million in compensation and issued a public apology.

“It wouldn’t matter if a substance was liquid plutonium destined for a child’s breakfast cereal,” a lawyer for Ethyl said at the time of the settlement. “If the government bans a product and a U.S.-based company loses profits, the company can claim damages under NAFTA.”

Within the U.S. federal system, advocacy groups have ways to contribute concerns about the regulatory system — comment periods, for example — “however, a permanent regulatory council like T-TIP will definitely enhance corporate influence over standard-setting and it will make it much, much more difficult for consumer and other civil society groups to monitor or even know what’s being discussed and to provide immediate input involving the food that we’re all eating,” Barker said.

“Trade agreements should set at least a minimum standard for critical issues such as food safety and then also allow countries to set even higher standards to protect citizens and environments,” she added.

Globalization of Food Systems

Barker’s report also briefly addresses the issues of trade on climate change.

“Given the state of the planet and the urgent need to reduce [greenhouse gas] emissions, economic imperatives should aim to bolster local production mainly for local consumption, localize energy sources as much as possible, and root capital primarily in local or regional economies,” the report states.

“T-TIP is part of this global economic trade system in food that just doesn’t make sense on an environmental level, on a nutritional level and on a food security level,” Barker told Food Safety News.

© Food Safety News
  • Phyllis (former foodbuglady)

    On the other hand, several EU countries (notably in Scandinavia) have done a stellar job of controlling Salmonella in poultry, and the UK has very stringent labeling of shell eggs. Each individual egg must be stamped with the source and lot code (with exceptions for very small hatcheries)