The EU poultry meat market has been closed to U.S. producers since 1997 when the EU began blocking imports of U.S. poultry products that had been processed with pathogen reduction treatments (PRTs).  Chlorinated water is the primary method the U.S. poultry meat industry uses to meet U.S. food safety requirements.  PRTs on all meats are a sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issue to be resolved in the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks.

In May of last year, USDA applied to the EU Commission to use a peroxyacetic acid (PAA) solution during processing to reduce pathogens on poultry carcasses and meat. The EU Commission requested an opinion by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) on the safety and efficacy of a PAA solution considering: its toxicological safety; its efficacy in significantly reducing the level of contamination; the potential emergence of reduced susceptibility to biocides and/or resistance to therapeutic antimicrobials; and the risk related to the release of processing plant effluents. On March 26 the EFSA issued an overall positive opinion of PAA solutions as a PRT for poultry carcasses and meat.

On the issue of toxicological safety, the EFSA found “no toxicity concerns were identified with regard to residues of peroxyacids” due to the high instability of the compound.  Dipping meat in a PAA solution was more effective than spraying, with dipping reducing Salmonella by 91-95 percent versus 28-87 percent reduction for spraying on warm carcasses.  The use of a PAA solution is considered unlikely to result in reduced susceptibility to biocides and/or resistance to therapeutic antimicrobials.   The only plant effluent issue was for HEDP, a product stabilizer that slows the breakdown of peroxyacetic acid and hydrogen peroxide.  While the overall report was positive, the EFSA did have recommendations for further analysis to address specific concerns.

PAA solutions are not a new issue for the EU as explained in the report. EFSA dealt with the toxicological risk and efficacy issues of PAA solutions as a poultry meat wash in 2005. There was not enough good data at that time to judge the efficacy in commercial processing plants.  Anti-microbial resistance issues were addressed in 2008.  Use of PAA solutions as a sanitizer and disinfectant is permitted under current EU regulations.  The uses include: human hygiene biocidal products; private area and public health area disinfectants; veterinary hygiene biocidal products; food and feed area disinfectants and drinking water disinfectants.  In addition, PAA solutions are permitted for use at various stages in the processing of red meat and poultry products.

According to a report by Inside U.S. Trade, USDA probably requested the EU Commission to have an evaluation by EFSA of PAA solutions because they are organic compounds and may be seen more favorably than chlorine-based washes.  PAA solutions are frequently used in the U.S. poultry meat industry.

There is at a slight precedent for progress on PRTs in poultry.  In talks last year leading up to the release of a report by a U.S.-EU High Level Working Group that recommended negotiations on TTIP, the EU agreed to accept the use of lactic acid on beef carcasses, but not meat cuts.  The EFSA had also issued a positive opinion on lactic acid in beef processing.  A little over a year and a half elapsed between the release of the EFSA opinion on beef and the EU Commission passing implementing regulations.

Some SPS issues are expected to be resolved during the negotiations on the trade agreement, while others issues will be resolved under a framework put in place in the agreement.  There are so many issues where the two sides appear to have irreconcilable positions on SPS issues that resolution of the PRTs for chicken meat issue could have a positive impact on U.S. agricultural interests in general and chicken meat producers specifically who have been skeptical about making real progress in the talks.  Both sides are aiming to resolve unscientific trade barriers, but the process has been largely driven by the U.S.  The PAA solutions issue is based on science and could be resolved before the TTIP negotiations are completed.

That doesn’t mean that it will be easy to get reconciliation.  The next legal step required for the EU Commission under EU law is to draft a regulation to approve the use of PAA solutions and present it to a standing committee of food safety experts.  The Commission has not yet made a decision go forward, but is expected to move at some point.  Eventually, the issue will be addressed at the ministerial level subject to the EU weighted qualified majority of members voting either to move the draft regulations forward or reject the commission’s regulations.  If there is no clear majority for or against, the issue goes back to the Commission to decide.

Before doing that, the Commission is likely to gather EU country specialists and stakeholders for a meeting on poultry meat inspection.   EFSA will present its opinions and conclusions at the meeting.  Holding the meeting is not a legal requirement, but a good strategy if the commission hopes to gain a qualified majority of support.  Country officials need to become familiar with the science before being asked them to take a formal position.

According to estimates by the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA, the EU has the world’s third largest domestic market for young chicken meat at 9.5 million metric tons (MMT) in 2014.  The EU is expected to import 0.67 MMT in 2014, while also exporting 1.11 MMT.  The EU stopped subsidizing chicken meat exports in July 2013.

The U.S. has worked on this issue for almost 20 years.  The U.S. asked for WTO consultation with the EU in January 2009, after EU member countries rejected a Commission proposal on PRTs.   Those consultations were held in February 2009, but the issues were not resolved.  The WTO Dispute Settlement Body established a panel in November 2009 to address the matter.  No further action has been taken.  If SPS issues are to be resolved based on science, this is a good place to start.

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.