Protecting consumers while promoting trade a tall order
By Brian Beary | Thursday 25 June 2009
As the food industry has become more global, with even a small supermarket stocking products from dozens of countries, the number of trade disputes arising from divergent food and plant safety regulations has grown substantially. Nowhere is this more apparent than with transatlantic economic relationship. “Most of our longstanding disputes come back to this issue,” said one US official, who alleged that “most competitive US food exports are blocked from EU markets,” notably corn, poultry, beef and rice.
This has happened because of differing rules on the cultivation of genetically modified foods, the use of growth hormones in live animals and of bacteria-killing chemicals in dead ones. It could happen again in the nascent, to date largely unregulated sector of meat derived from the offspring of cloned animals. The oft-repeated mantra from the US administration is that Europe closes off its market based on, as US Trade Representative Ron Kirk put it, “myths without scientific justification”. Indeed, Kirk has placed as one of his top priorities the need to “unravel of the web of sanitary and phytosanitary trade barriers on agricultural products”.
But the grievances are far from being one-sided. The European Union has long railed against a raft of new and old bureaucratic procedures and regulations that the US has in place, which make it difficult for European food exporters to access the US market. For example, European dairy farmers have been particularly badly affected by highly-prescriptive rules on how to pasteurise milk. Dutch manufacturers of ornamental plants wait years, even decades, to get authorisation to market their plants in the US. And European beef can still not be sold in the US because of the high incidence in previous years of mad cow disease or BSE, even though US officials admit the EU now has a system in place that ensures European beef is safe to eat.
From a traders’ perspective, a perennial problem is one of politicians and regulators responding to constituent concerns about food safety by immediately curbing imports, often imposing a blanket ban before obtaining scientific evidence to merit this. They typically come down on the pro-food safety, rather than the pro-free trade side, in order to shield themselves from criticism that they are not protecting consumers’ health. Food scares tend to be quickly and widely publicised in the media, whereas trade obstacles that derive from the response to such scares often have less news value.
As European and American regulators continue to navigate their way through a dozen or so disputes, using bilateral, regional and multilateral channels,
Europolitics drills down into the details of these dossiers and tackles some of the bigger-picture questions.