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Fear of BSE keeps EU food standards high

13 February 2020

Memories of the 1990s mad cow disease crisis means the EU will likely reject US demands for relaxing strict food safety rules, even with President Trump threatening tariffs on cars if EU countries don't begin imports of more US farm products.

According to reporting from Reuters, the US is increasing pressure on the EU to relax its food safety standards in order to ramp up US farm imports. Since European food and farming exports to the US are higher than imports, US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to the EU it should adapt its food regulations to reflect "sound science" instead of the "precautionary principle".   

However, Brussels is unlikely to 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 US farming practices.

Washington points to inconsistencies -- EU salad leaves are regularly washed with chlorine -- and says EU rules are a smokescreen for protectionism as the rules undoubtedly 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 US has strict liability for lawsuits, which we don't have so much in the EU ... Here, the sense is more wanting to minimise 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 labelling 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 labelling of GM food and some of its farming lobbies believe Europe is unfairly stigmatising their products with labels.

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