TTIP and food safety: What’s behind the fuss about the leaked EU document?


Posted By: Selerant RSA

Currently, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is negotiated between the governments of the US and the EU. One objective is to facilitate economic exchange between both markets by reducing barriers to trade that stem from regulation. The potential effects on food safety regulation stirred considerable public debate. Despite all harmonization on the global level food safety regulations still differ even across highly regulated countries, a nice way to compare across regulation is using tools like the REGDATA Food Compliance Cloud service, a database that covers 80+ countries. 

Especially non-governmental organisations (NGOs) in Europe raised concerns about negative effects on the level of food safety in the EU. The fear is that European restrictive approaches, for example to genetically modified food or the use of hormones in beef, will be given up. This debate is also reflected in media reports and there are signs that consumers in Europe are concerned. For example, over one million consumers in Europe signed a petition against TTIP. The debate was given more impetus when an EU Commission document about the linkage of food safety topics and TTIP was leaked in July 2014 (the now declassified text can be found here (Link: data.consilium.europa.eu/doc/document/ST-11103-2013-DCL-1/en/pdf ).

The fierce debate about the TTIP negotiations to a great part is about the lack of transparency of the process and the inclusion of business while societal actors have not been included adequately. The transparency debate often gets mixed up with discussions about the effects of TTIP, for example in this article of the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy which leaked the aforementioned document (Link: http://www.iatp.org/documents/leaked-document-reveals-us-eu-trade-agreement-threatens-public-health-food-safety). The transparency issues aside the question remains: What are the potential effects of TTIP on food safety regulation? A closer look shows that naturally the situation is more complex than headlines about ‘chlorine chicken’ suggest.

Firstly, the fear is about a phenomena which has been phrased “race to the bottom”. The race to the bottom argument holds that nation states keep relaxing their regulation when trade barriers are reduced, because they need to stay competitive. However, this highly popular concept in the public debate has been frequently questioned by scholars of regulation. In fact, little evidence has been found to support his claim.

Food safety issues – officially termed sanitary and phytosanitary issues - are clearly subordinated to the objective of maximizing trade in TTIP. The leaked text sets out with the objective to “increase trade and investment” to later state that this should not be done by “lowering domestic environmental, labour or occupational health and safety legislation and standards”. In short, the formula of the TTIP negotiation is to facilitate trade as much as possible while keeping as much food safety regulation as necessary. It is this principle which itself has often heavily been criticized. In this regard the debate about TTIP is very similar to debate about the World Trade Organisation (WTO) which exactly represents the same approach. The argument, however, that this approach puts pressure on food safety regulation is problematic at least. As a matter of fact, nearly 20 years after the foundation of the WTO, we know that food safety regulation became stricter ever since.

Will TTIP change specific food safety standards in participating countries? This is rather unlikely. What seems more likely is that TTIP will establish principles which potentially ‘overrule’ food safety concerns. This is what critics fear what happens, when, as it is planned, certain maximum residue levels for pesticides, for example, have to be treated as safe unless the importing country raises concerns. Similarly, planned procedures for the case of animal diseases in an exporting country are not about lowering standards. In this case, for example, it is about accepting foodstuff from disease free zones of the exporting country and the procedures how an importing country can verify and question the definition of such disease free zones. Similarly, one concern is the elimination of port of entry re-inspection policies which again is not a change in the requirements for food safety of products itself but a change in risk management and inspection policies.

What TTIP does is raising the barriers for introducing stricter food safety regulation as with TTIP each participating country binds itself stronger on the development of standards in its partner countries. Therefore, much of the anxiety about TTIP stems from an anticipated broader picture, in which there is a “lack of requirements in the TTIP to implement and enforce SPS measures with budgets and personnel adequate to protect human, plant and animal health”, as Steve Suppan from the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy argues.

Overall, the discussion about the impact TTIP will have on food safety regulation remains on an abstract level. Public debate is stirred by few highly politicized topics like chlorine chicken, GMOs and hormone treated beef. The public debate becomes more understandable when one takes into account the lack of transparency. However, the overall effect of TTIP on food safety levels in the participating countries at this point in time is hard if not impossible to predict.