US/EU free trade good – but strict food standards better

Euro / DollarFood or trade? MEPs need to continue to defend European food standards, despite the temptation from governments to yield to the sweet, siren voice of big food.

My mother was never a political person. She has left us now, but all her life she tended to follow my father’s voting preferences. Only once do I remember her getting outraged over a political issue, and that was on the subject of food.

She was absolutely against genetically-modified food. GMOs (genetically-modified organisms) were in her eyes, quite simply, wrong. They were a dangerous attempt to interfere with the basic nutritional value of food, and as such should not be allowed.

Perhaps it is relevant that she cooked and baked all her life. Also that my father brought a deal of vegetables from the garden and, when we were younger, from an allotment. While never well-off, we were able to enjoy the benefits of a lifetime of knowledge about food as well as regular fresh produce.

So as I look at the potential of a new free-trade agreement between the European Union and the United States, I am wary. Like many I hope that a new agreement will bring economic benefit to both sides of the Atlantic. But I would put the maintenance of EU food standards first in any negotiations.

A new EU/US free-trade agreement?

President Barack Obama’s “green light” to comprehensive trade talks between the EU and the US (in his annual State of the Union address on 12th February 2013) has excited business and government in both the EU and the US. The pundits believe that a “transatlantic agreement” could be the largest single free-trade zone in the world.

Of course, that announcement did not come out of the blue. It resulted from a report out of the joint US/EU High Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth (HLWG), which had been investigating opportunities for greater cooperation since November 2011.

In the group’s final report on 13th February 2013, it recommended that as both sides work towards a more integrated transatlantic marketplace, they would need to address “behind-the-border” obstacles to transatlantic trade, including ways “to reduce unnecessary costs and administrative delays stemming from regulation.”

The report referred to the WTO (World Trade Organisation) Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), where each side should seek to obtain, “greater openness, transparency and convergence in regulatory approaches and requirements and related standards-development processes.”

But Europe’s MEPs are wary

However the HLWG report also referred to a key part of the WTO agreement, to “reduce redundant and burdensome testing and certification requirements.” And it is this small print buried within the technical detail of the report that is drawing fire from Members of the European Parliament, many of whom already distrust the US regulatory machine as too much in hock to big business.

Responding to the announcement, MEPs emphasised that while such a deal could be positive, it would have to respect European regulations. Chairman of the Parliament’s International Trade Committee Professor Vital Moreiria said that the biggest bone of contention in the talks would be animal and plant health standards. Would the EU come under pressure to abandon the precautionary principle in these areas? Other MEPs raised concerns over genetically modified crops and hormones in beef.

MEPs are right to be wary; US/EU agreements in recent years have unfortunate form. The Passenger Name Record (PNR) agreement was only renewed in 2012 against strong objection from many MEPs. PNR allows European airlines to fulfil their obligation to supply information on passengers booking long-haul flights, to the US security administration. However, since at last count this security administration numbered over a dozen different agencies, there are concerns about adequate controls over such data. Voting in the Parliament went 409 votes in favour, 226 against and 33 abstentions, showing a sizeable opposition.

Sophie in ’t Veld (ALDE, NL) said at the time that the PNR, “still falls short of the high standards of data privacy and legal protection that our citizens expect. …. Apparently the European Parliament believes transatlantic relations are more important than the fundamental rights of EU citizens.”

And MEPs are quite capable of putting a stop to an agreement, no matter how high-level, if they feel the cause is just. In July 2012 the Parliament voted down the Anti-Counterfeiting Trade Agreement (ACTA) because of concerns about its application, despite the fact that it had been laboriously negotiated by the European Commission and approved by many member states.

US consumers also mistrustful

US consumers can be equally mistrustful of their government’s regulatory regime. The author of a recent article on US food-industry petitions to the US Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has complained that consumers are routinely kept in the dark about items such as pink slime, meat glue, rBGH and GMOs in their food. Not to mention the milk from antibiotics-inundated cows! (1)

He writes that the US dairy industry is now lobbying the FDA to be able to hide the presence of the artificial sweetener aspartame in milk, by removing the necessity to include it on the food label. The industry claims that removing any mention of the presence of the sweetener from the label would re-assure consumers who may be concerned about the purity and nutritive value of their food. In other words, milk with added artificial sweeteners should just be labelled as milk.

Of course, the FDA could still do the right thing and throw out the application; the consultation process on its website remains open until 21st May 2013. But if the lobby succeeds, then milk will become yet another US food that is tainted with hidden and unlabelled additives, thanks to the power of the big food lobby.

Food more important than trade

Much remains to be worked out if an EU/US trade agreement is to meet its projected deadline of two years time. And food standards, like those for animal and plant health, are likely to be red lines for Europe in the discussions.

I hope that a new agreement that benefits transatlantic trade does come to fruition. But I think that it cannot take place at the expense of food purity and safety. Like my mother I suppose, I see the best food as simple and based on generations of experience.

© Philip Hunt, 2013.


(1) US dairy industry petitions FDA to approve aspartame as hidden, unlabeled additive in milk, yogurt, eggnog and cream, February 25, 2013,

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