In the final days of the Bush Administration outgoing U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab requested WTO dispute consultations with the EU on an eleven-year disagreement on pathogen reduction treatments (PRTs) for poultry meat. The treatments are standard practices in the U.S. and the European Food Safety Authority found that risks were minimal from treating poultry with chlorinated water. The science has increasingly sided with the U.S., but food safety is often a policy issue with political decisions.

In 1997 the EU began prohibiting PRTs which stopped virtually all poultry shipments from the U.S. to the EU. The standard arguments against the PRTs were that using antimicrobial treatments would simply hide unhygienic slaughter and processing practices and induce resistance by the microbes on the poultry meat. The U.S. formally requested in 2002 that four PRTs, chlorite dioxide, acidified sodium chloride, trisodium phosphate and peroxyacids, be approved by the EU for use on imported poultry.

The European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) is the EU agency charged with assessing food and feed safety issues. They work with national governments and other parties to provide scientific advice on risks in the food supply. The Authority’s Panel on Biological Hazards responded to a request from the EU Commission to assess the potential development of antimicrobial resistance when the four PRTs are applied to poultry. In an opinion released in April of 2008 the Panel concluded there are no published data to conclude that applications to remove microbial contamination on poultry with the proposed conditions of use would lead to reduced susceptibility to these substances. Also, there are no published data to conclude that use would lead to resistance to therapeutic antimicrobials. The panel noted spraying poultry with antimicrobials was preferable to dipping or immersion treatments.

The EU Commission is operating under new authority from a package of hygiene laws that became effective on January 1, 2008 which permit the use of something other than potable water to remove contamination from red meat and poultry. Despite the new regulatory authority and the EFSA opinion, in early June of last year the EU Standing Committee on Food Chain and Animal Health, the chief veterinary officers of the 27 member countries, voted 26 to 0 with the UK abstaining to reject an EU Commission proposal to allow limited use of the four PRTs. Later in June the European Parliament voted 526 to 27 with 11 abstentions for a non-binding resolution against poultry imports with PRT. According to the U.S. Agricultural Attaché in Brussels, one German Member of Parliament “defended the Commission proposals by saying that chlorine was being used in all sorts of products in the EU, such as feedstuff, food products and drinking water. He questioned if this would be allowed if it were dangerous. He also mentioned the use of these same methods by French poultry exporters.”

That vote was followed by a mid-December 26-0-1 decision by the EU Agricultural and Fisheries Council, the agricultural ministers of the 27 governments. The December vote and discussions with EU officials led USTR Schwab to conclude that asking for consultations was the next logical step. No one expects the issues to be resolved in the 60 days of consultations, and the new Obama Administration could ask that a WTO panel be formed to determine if the EU has acted consistent with its obligations.

The EU Commission appears to be doing the right thing by relying on science to inform the debate and making at least cautious moves toward accepting science based outcomes. Science appears to have moved towards the U.S. position over the last eleven years, but that has not convinced member government officials that they should move away from traditional practices of protecting domestic markets.

The poultry PRT issue has come up at meetings of the U.S.-EU cabinet-level Transatlantic Economic Council which is supposed to work out trade issues before they disrupt political relationships. Before the EFSA panel opinion was released last April the EU’s Commissioner for Enterprise and Industry Guenter Verheugen of Germany observed in a letter to EU Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso, “The U.S. takes the poultry issue as a test case as to whether we are seriously ‘pro-American.’ We should also be ready to come forward with an alternative solution if the scientific advice is mixed or negative…” The opinion was negative for the EU and the three votes resulted in action by USTR Schwab which is strongly supported by the U.S. poultry industry, the National Association of Manufacturers and other groups.

Exports are an integral part of the U.S. poultry industry. Over the last 15 years chicken exports have increased from 8 percent of total production to 18 percent. Turkey exports in 2008 were 10 percent of U.S. production. The U.S. lost a 92,000 metric ton poultry market in 2007 when Romania and Bulgaria joined the EU and U.S. poultry was barred because of the PRT issue.

The EU became a net importer of poultry meat in 2008 after a tariff rate quota was established for Brazil and Thailand as a result of a WTO ruling. The EU faces increased export market competition from the U.S. and Brazil in Russia, the Ukraine and the Middle East. The EU industry struggles with high feed and energy costs and environmental and animal welfare regulations.

The EU has shown the ability to find a middle ground between the trade policy realities faced by the EU Commission and the tendency of member countries to protect the status quo. The U.S. and developing countries are not likely to back down from attempts to gain more access to EU markets. If the EU is to maintain a modest amount of credibility on sanitary and phyto-sanitary issue, they will need to quickly find that middle ground.