Food. It's on the table.

Sam Lowe

25 July 2014

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a secretive bilateral trade agreement currently being negotiated between the EU and US, is being billed as a panacea to Europe’s economic woes. However, very little evidence has been provided to corroborate these lofty claims. Not only have potential benefits been massively oversold by the European Commission and US trade delegates, statements from some businesses and politicians, on both sides of the Atlantic, suggest that this deal will lead to a significant lowering of regulatory standards and safeguards in sectors such as food, chemicals and the environment.

This potential race to the bottom is extremely worrying.

In an attempt to allay such concerns, the EU Trade Commissioner, Karel De Gucht, has repeatedly stated that TTIP will not affect food safety standards in the EU, which are often objectively higher than those in the US. “These issues just aren’t on the table”, he promised. The European Commission has also dismissed such concerns as nothing more than NGO “scaremongering”.  

However, a recently leaked document suggests that food safety is very much on the table.

Here are three key concerns from my reading of the European Commission draft TTIP chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary (food safety, animal health and plant health) issues, leaked to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy:

 

  1. Food safety standards jeopardised by conflict of interest

Regarding food safety safeguards for imported food, the European Commission is pushing for a system of ‘mutual recognition’. This means that both parties (the EU and US) would accept each other's' approach so long as it complies with “the importing Party’s appropriate level of protection”. Each may lodge an objection on individual issues, so long as it doesn’t create an “unjustified barrier to trade” … whatever one of those is.

So who decides what exactly an “appropriate level of protection” is? Well, that would either be determined at a domestic level or the metrics would be set by international standard setting bodies such as Codex. (Codex, by the way, has already controversially ruled that the growth hormone ractopamine can be allowed in meat).

There is additionally an overriding mandate, stating that the implementation and enforcement of food safety safeguards should be done in the “least trade restrictive manner”.

This immediately flags up a fundamental conflict of interest.

Food safety safeguards exist to protect and optimise public health, not to help businesses maximise profits. In fact, there may often be a tension between these two goals – look at last year’s horsemeat in burgers scandal, for example. 

Friends of the Earth believes there is no legitimate justification for allowing considerations about ‘potential impact on trade’ to have any bearing on the implementation and enforcement of food safety safeguards whatsoever.

 

  1. Cut in port inspections could lead to rise in contaminated food imports

The European Commission is planning to reduce port of entry food safety inspections and tests. They would be replaced by an exporter country certification process, working on the assumption that both party’s food safety safeguards are of equivalent rigour. This is a shift in approach that industry has been dreaming about for years.

There are many reasons why this is concerning. I will highlight two.

Firstly, port of entry inspections are an important final step in regards to ensuring that food is safe and that all other safety systems are working correctly. Without this step, there is an increased probability of contaminated goods slipping through the safety net.

Secondly, the implicit understanding that both party’s food safety safeguards are equivalent is based on a shaky premise. What if they are not in fact equivalent, as is currently the case, despite the TTIP agreement having determined that they are? In such a scenario, under this chapter of TTIP, the importing party would be required to accept the exporting party’s judgement despite there being clear safety concerns.

 

  1. Importing countries lose power to block suspected unsafe food from entering

“The importing Party shall recognize for trade the health status of zones, as determined by the exporting Party”. Translated into English, this means that when importing food or plants from an area or zone known to contain disease, the importing party (the place with no disease) must accept the exporting party’s (the place with the disease) judgement regarding whether the product is safe. This actively prevents importer countries from implementing precautionary import restrictions on a potentially contaminated product unless they, the importer, can prove unequivocally that it is unsafe.

This plausibly opens up a potential scenario wherein the exporting party, whose national companies stand to lose money if restrictions are put in place by the importing party, plays down contamination risk in order to continue exporting its goods.

Even if the importing party suspected contamination, TTIP would render it unable to ban or restrict imports of the potentially infected product. Such an occurrence could have conceivably catastrophic consequences.

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Here I have attempted to provide a brief summary of the leaked draft chapter - I heartily recommend reading Dr. Steve Suppan’s in-depth analysis for a more detailed breakdown and assessment- but I hope you get the gist; it’s really quite bad. In regards to the full TTIP negotiation, there is still a lot of uncertainty and we won't know everything until the full negotiating texts are made available or leaked. We do now, however, know one thing for certain:

Sorry to call you out on this, Commissioner De Gucht, but food safety is an issue that most definitely IS on the table, and this is bad news for everyone.

 

Samuel Lowe is Campaigner in the Land, Food and Water Security programme. He tweets as @SamuelMarcLowe

 

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