How US Negotiators Are Attacking Europe’s Consumer Protections

From genetically modified food to hormone-treated meat: the TTIP papers show how Washington is trying to cancel out an important European consumer protection principle.

Jack Bobo is on a mission when he steps into the windowless Washington conference room in the spring. His message: Only genetic engineering will resolve the conflict between agriculture and the environment. For that, though, people will first need to accept genetic engineering. “The apple,” he believes, “could be the product that changes consumers’ minds.”* He has to say that; Bobo is a lobbyist for the U.S. genetic engineering firm Intrexon, which is just as involved in pharmaceuticals as it is in agriculture. With shining eyes, he describes Arctic Apples that do not brown when cut. The first genetically engineered Granny Smith apple will be ready for the market soon, its flesh as white as the eternal ice.

Dream or nightmare? For consumer advocates and environmentalists in the EU, the distribution of genetically modified plants is more akin to a nightmare scenario, the same as meat imports from animals whose growth was driven by hormones. Both are widely prohibited in Europe. According to authorities, for example, it is unclear what health implications the consumption of such products has. Additionally, there are possible negative effects on the environment. In the U.S., however, genetically engineered foods and hormone-treated meats are mass products. American producers want to sell them in Europe, by means of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership.

Insight into classified documents shows that the risk assessment is a central point of contention in the negotiations. Completely different approaches are colliding with each other in the process. The so-called scientific principle applies in the United States. It states that a product qualifies as safe until the opposite is proven. Europe, however, adheres to the precautionary principle. The suspicion of risk can already be enough to declare a ban.

The TTIP papers show for the first time how doggedly the American side is trying to cancel out the European precautionary principle. At various points, U.S. negotiators have repeatedly emphasized the scientific principle; for example, when it comes to hygiene regulations. In assessing risk, the U.S. demands that each party should make sure that “reasonably available scientific data” is considered. The EU does not reject this outright, but it insists that every party must retain the right in the future to “protect human, animal or plant life and health in its territory” according to its own ideas.

But what does it mean to be scientifically based? “At first it sounds reasonable. But a perfidious concept hides behind it that would enable corporations to bring the legislative process to a stop at any time,” says Green politician Bärbel Höhn. Banning a product could be prevented with the objection that there is insufficient evidence to prove it is a danger.

In fact, there is a prohibition that is not purely based on science, a prohibition of “unnecessary, technical trade barriers” in American judgement, and these are “to be reduced or dismantled,” according to the demand. Occupational safety and health, consumer or environmental laws could thus be watered down or postponed indefinitely, worries Höhn.

It is certainly plausible that suspected risks will be investigated quickly rather than thoroughly.

“Most people think of independent research when they think of the scientific principle, but that is false,” explains Cristoph Then of Testbiotech, an organization critical of genetic engineering. “Documents that we see for the approval of genetically modified plants mostly come from industry, lacking independent investigation,” he says. It is primarily a matter of developing new technologies. In contrast, the idea of protection is neglected, on the other hand, which is also a problem for them, because U.S. manufacturers will swarm the market with a large number of new developments in plant and animal breeding in the next few years. The modalities for the admission of “modern agricultural technologies” are to be firmly enshrined in the treaty according to the will of the U.S. It also stipulates “that unnecessary distortions that affect trade be reduced.” That could mean that risks would be investigated quickly rather than thoroughly in cases of doubt.

The EU Commission denies again and again that the precautionary principle is in jeopardy due to pressure from the United States. A look into the papers shows, however, that the authorization of genetically modified foods or hormone-treated meat has not been precluded at any point. U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Thomas Vilsack has repeatedly stressed how little he thinks of the Europeans’ attitude: “[i]t will hinder trade, if foodstuffs are not licensed based on scientific evidence but based on the demands placed upon it by politicians.”

The Göttingen-based lecturer in constitutional law Peter-Tobias Stoll considers the question of risk assessment to be crucial; he finds many TTIP opponents’ fears that the treaty could weaken consumer protections to be justified. “It is difficult for me to imagine that no standards will be lowered in the future,” says Stoll. “I am surprised how explicitly the U.S. is trying to codify the American regulatory style into the TTIP.”

Critics also fear that the labeling of foodstuffs will be curtailed. All ingredients that are produced by genetically modified organisms must be marked on the packaging in the European Union. The U.S. rejects this. They see it as a trade barrier that could cause unnecessary costs and could additionally be misunderstood as an indication of risk. American consumer advocates criticize its lack of transparency. They have demanded labeling of genetically modified foods in the United States for years, mostly in vain, because agricultural and food companies spend millions on campaigns designed to prevent just that.

“The experience of our colleagues in the U.S. demonstrates that consumer protection regulations often get stuck,” says Klaus Müller, president of the Federation of German Consumer Organizations.

*Editor’s note: This quote, although accurately translated, could not be independently verified.

About this publication

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply