The U.S. and the EU will begin negotiations in early July on the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  At the initial meeting in Washington, DC the two sides will discuss the scope of the negotiations and the number of working groups on specific issues.  Sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues for agricultural products need to be included in one of the anticipated 20 working groups.

There are no mysteries about the SPS issues of interest to the U.S.  In March of this year the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative published its fourth annual Report on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures.  Most SPS measures are justified for human health and safety reasons, but sometimes protectionist trade measures creep in as supposedly food safety issues.

Some SPS issues are minor and should be resolved quickly by negotiators.  The EU mandates imported cherries to be free of brown rot and requires written proof that controls have been applied in the field. This limits the supply of cherries from the U.S. that would otherwise qualify for export to the EU.  The EU does not require the same poof of control in the field for EU countries where brown rot is found.

The EU limits the number of somatic cells in raw milk, as measured by the somatic cell count (SCC).  The U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) allows raw milk to be sold in the U.S. with higher SCC levels than the EU does.  Also, the FDA considers the SCC level to be a quality rather than food safety criterion and limits should not be required for public health purposes.

Other issues are part of a wider policy principle.  Before 2008, the EU authorized imports of molluscan shellfish under the terms of the U.S.‐European Community Veterinary Equivalence Agreement.  The EU notified the FDA that the import approval for U.S.‐origin molluscan shellfish would expire at the end of 2009.  The U.S. has provided information needed to reach an equivalence determination.  Regulatory equivalence based on sound science is a fundamental principle that must be used repeatedly in the TTIP to harmonize U.S. and European regulations.

The EU currently maintains a ban on pork produced with ractopamine, a feed additive that promotes feed efficiency, despite the establishment of a Codex standard in July 2012, which the EU countries opposed at Codex.  U.S. pork exporters must participate in a Pork for the EU Program to verify that the pork has not been produced using ractopamine, and U.S. pork shipments must undergo expensive laboratory testing to verify the absence of ractopamine residue.

Some progress has been made on pathogen reduction treatments (PRTs) used in processing beef and poultry meat.  The poultry issue has been active since 1998 and beef since 2010.  The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) concluded in 2011 that lactic acid as a PRT for beef is safe for human consumption.  An EU rule went into effect on February 25, 2013 as part of the High Level Working Group (HLWG) talks of government officials that led to the decision to pursue the TTIP.  Consultations on poultry PRTs were held under the WTO dispute settlement process in February 2009, but no agreement was reached.  A WTO dispute settlement panel was formed in November 2009.

Some disputes have gone unresolved for over a decade.  In May 2009, the U.S. and EU signed an agreement to resolve on a provisional basis a 1998 WTO dispute lost by the EU over barring trade of U.S. beef raised with growth‐promoting hormones.  A WTO panel had ruled that there was no scientific reason for the ban, and in 1999 the WTO authorized the U.S. to increase tariffs on selected EU exports to the U.S. valued at $116.8 million per year.  The 2009 agreement provided additional duty‐free access to the EU market for high-quality beef produced from cattle raised without added hormones – 20,000 metric tons (MT) in each of the first three years and 45,000 MT in the fourth year. A long-term agreement was to be negotiated over the following four years, but no agreement has been reached.

In 2003, the U.S. challenged the EU’s de facto moratorium on approvals of U.S. agricultural biotech products, as well as marketing prohibitions that individual EU countries had imposed on EU-approved products.  A WTO dispute resolution panel in 2006 found that EU and individual country measures were inconsistent with WTO rules.  As of December 31, 2012, a backlog of 72 U.S. applications for approval of import, renewal, and cultivation remains pending in the EU approval system, which has the effect of blocking U.S. exports of some agricultural products. The EU approved six products in 2012, taking an average of 40 months to reach a decision.

The U.S. continues to press the EU for improvements in its regulatory system with the goal of normalizing trade in agricultural biotech products.  The EU approval system includes two steps: an initial scientific assessment by EFSA, followed by a ‘comitology’ process (comitology committees assist the EU Commission in executing its implementing powers by giving an opinion on draft implementing measures before they are adopted) which involves interactions between the EU Commission and the EU countries.  Even when the EU approves a particular biotech product, individual countries can ban a product under a so‐called ‘safeguard clause.’  EFSA has reached the same scientific conclusion for specific biotech products as authorities in the U.S. and other countries.  EFSA has never concluded that a biotech variety approved for commercial production in the U.S. is unsafe.  The issue is not the science, but the political process of what happens after the science has been established.

If these issues were easy to resolve simply based on science, they would have been resolved long ago.  But if sound science is not used, then trade protection will become the norm.  One of the recommendations from the HLWG was to have a ‘SPS-plus’ chapter in the TTIP, including establishing an on-going mechanism for improved dialogue and cooperation on addressing bilateral SPS issues.  The chapter would build on principles in the WTO SPS Agreement, including measures based on science, international standards and scientific risk assessment and developed in a transparent manner.  The measures would only be applied to the extent necessary to protect human, animal and plant life or health.  Since the standards would be higher and broader than those of the WTO, an enforcement mechanism would need to be included in the agreement.

Ross Korves is a Trade and Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade & Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org).  Follow us: @TruthAboutTrade on Twitter | Truth About Trade & Technology on Facebook.