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Food safety rules as protection or protectionism?

SPS (sanitary and phytosanitary standards) barriers figured prominently in the final Agricultural Council of 2008 under the French Presidency. Agricultural Ministers agreed Council Conclusions on the safety of imported agricultural and agri-food products and compliance with Community rules. At the same meeting, EU Farm Ministers rejected a Commission proposal to allow the use of antimicrobial substances to treat poultry carcasses, which would have re-opened the Community market to US imports. Is there a danger that food safety protection becomes an excuse for protectionism?

Already in June this year the French had circulated a memorandum on Food, feed, animal and plant imports: safety and compliance with Community rules which identified four main problems.

* Differences between member states in the practices applying to food imports concerning the performance and frequency of checks (a harmonisation deficit);

* The need to base monitoring of food imports on a more comprehensive sanitary and phytosanitary risk assessment (better use of risk analysis);

* Differences in the requirements facing EU producers and imported foodstuffs (the memorandum highlighted examples where a ban on the use of chemical substances and their residues in foodstuffs in the EU might not apply to imported foods, the burdens of traceability on EU producers, or higher standards applying to animal feed manufacture in the EU (distortion of competition).

* The need to amend the WTO SPS agreement to allow import restrictions not only on the basis of scientific assessment of health risks but also other legitimate factors and collective preferences as, for example, with respect to animal welfare.

In its Conclusions, the Council welcomed the Commission’s moves already in train for more effective veterinary and health checks on imports into the Community. It also supported the French proposal for use of comprehensive risk analysis in designing import protection policies, and approved greater coordination between member state border inspection services.

The Council Conclusions were more cautious on the other two issues. While it agreed to promote European standards and regulatory criteria (my italics) within international standardisation organisations in the fields of animal health, plant health and food safety, and in negotiations for bilateral agreements with third countries, this is to be “in compliance with the SPS Agreement” which of course only recognises scientific concerns. On collective preferences, the Council only sought better information for consumers, presumably through labelling, in accordance with international trade rules.

Regarding the use of trade barriers to compensate for the higher standards supposedly met by Community producers, the Commission was asked to produce a report in the economic impact of differences in standards. The Conclusions read:

in compliance with the SPS Agreement, to continue to promote European standards and regulatory criteria within international standardisation organisations (e.g. OIE, IPPC, EPPO, Codex alimentarius) in the fields of animal health, plant health and food safety, and in negotiations for bilateral agreements with third countries;

to begin considering appropriate mechanisms for consumer information that would provide much greater transparency on the methods and conditions of production and characteristics of products, in accordance with international trade rules;

to explore what impacts any differences in standards between EU producers and key international trading partners actually have on Community trade, and to analyse, as a basis for further discussion, how international and bilateral trade rules can better interact with EU societal concerns and legitimate factors.”

The potential importance of SPS barriers in the case of food trade was underlined by the Council decision taken at the same meeting not to allow the use of antimicrobial substances to treat poultry. Food manufacturers in Europe are only allowed to use water to remove surface contamination from animal products, whereas the US permits the use of chlorine disinfectant to wash poultry carcases. This has long been a thorn in the side of US poultry exporters, and the US requested an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority of the health effects of using these antimicrobial substances.

The scientific advice of the European Food Safety Authority was that there was no evidence of any risk to human health or risk of greater resistence to therapeutic antimicrobials. On this basis, the Commission had proposed to approve the use these antimicrobial substances under strict conditions. However, the EU’s Standing Committee on the Food Chain and Animal Health (a regulatory committee which consists of representatives of the member states) had voted 26-1 against approving these substances in June, and this decision has now been upheld in the Agricultural Council.

The importance of this issue to the US is shown by its prominence in the agenda of the Transatlantic Economic Council which is the principal bilateral US-EU body to discuss transatlantic economic relations. The refusal of the Agricultural Council to accept this recommendation now opens the possibility of a trade dispute before the WTO.

French Agriculture Minister, Michel Barnier, is reported as saying that the decision had nothing to do with preventing competition. “No, it isn’t protectionism,” he said. “Don’t mistake protection for protectionism. The Americans and the Chinese and others will just have to get used to Europeans saying that not only is our system better, but it is different and we value that difference.”

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