By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) – The specter of the 1990s BSE crisis means the European Union is likely to reject U.S. demands it ease strict food safety rules, even with President Donald Trump threatening car tariffs if EU countries do not start importing more U.S. farm products.
With European food and farming exports to the United States worth up to $12 billion a year more than imports, U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue told the EU last month it should adapt its food regulations to reflect “sound science”.
But there seems little prospect Brussels will agree.
Europeans who remember BSE, nicknamed mad cow disease, will not accept any lowering of food standards and no politician could support a trade deal perceived as doing so, said Johan Bjerkem, trade specialist at the European Policy Centre.
“On top of that, you’re negotiating with Trump, for whom not many Europeans have great sympathy,” he said. “Combine these things and it will be very difficult to accept a deal on those issues.”
Trump, who has long complained that the EU’s position on trade is “worse than China,” said on Monday he was training his sights on Europe, raising the prospect of a new trade war.
The EU bans imports of meat treated with growth hormones or poultry washed with peracetic acid, often dubbed ‘chlorinated chicken’. Both are standard U.S. farming practices.
Washington points to inconsistencies — EU salad leaves are regularly washed with chlorine — and says EU rules are a smokescreen for protectionism. They undoubtedly do benefit EU farmers.
Brussels’ response is that antimicrobial poultry washes mask otherwise far less strict and hygienic standards.
The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) has concluded that the various washes are not a safety concern, but do not replace the need for good hygienic practices during processing of poultry carcasses.
The agency’s study of hormone-treated meat similarly does not conclude that it is unsafe, but says there is insufficient data to prove it is safe.
CAUTIOUS EU APPROACH
The distinction is important, highlighting the “precautionary principle” that guides EU food safety law.
“The U.S. has strict liability for lawsuits, which we don’t have so much in the EU … Here, the sense is more wanting to minimize the risks,” said Mute Schimpf, food specialist at Friends of the Earth Europe.
Bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), which passed to humans and resulted from cattle being fed the remains of other livestock, led to a worldwide ban on British beef exports and the culling of millions of animals. It and other food scandals, such as dioxin in feed in Belgium, led to the founding of EFSA in 2002 and inform its safety-first approach.
“It led to the introduction in Europe of the precautionary principle, the idea that if you’re not certain, don’t take unnecessary risks,” said Erik Millstone, professor of science policy at the University of Sussex.
Instead of reporting to agriculture ministries or commissioners also concerned about the welfare of farmers and the food industry, food safety agencies became part of policy on health and consumer protection.
EU labeling laws also tightened at a similar time. In 2003, labels were required to show the presence of more than trace elements of genetically modified (GM) crops. The result was that, while millions of tonnes of GM animal feed are imported into Europe, there are no GM food items on sale to EU consumers.
The United States does not require labeling of GM food and some of its farming lobbies believe Europe is unfairly stigmatizing their products with labels.
The restrictions though are not only in Europe.
The United States bans cheese made with unpasturised milk unless it has been aged for 60 days, ruling out imports of French brie and camembert. Kinder Eggs, a chocolate encasing a plastic toy, are also banned.
A lot of standards essentially boil down to local customs and a suspicion of standards elsewhere, particularly practices promoted by big foreign business.
“We work on the principle that if we don’t do it, it must be bad. Whether that is protectionist or not I leave for others to dwell on,” said Hosuk Lee-Makayama, director of trade think tank ECIPE.
(Reporting by Philip Blenkinsop; Additional reporting by Jakub Riha; Editing by Catherine Evans)