FOOD & CULTURE European gourmets up in arms

European foodies fear lower safety and quality standards, while Americans could get their teeth into new delicacies.

The negotiations over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) are setting off alarms among European gourmands who fear the arrival of hormone-infused meat, hidden GMOs and Made-in-USA ‘Parma Ham’ on the Old Continent. Their fear is such that agro-alimentary issues are at the very heart of the Stop TTIP campaign, which as of early February had gathered over 1.3 million signatures.

The main concern lies with food safety. Whereas European regulations monitor every step of the food production process (the farm-to-fork principle), the United States only controls the final product. Moreover, many American practices are prohibited in the European Union, including hormone-treated meat (banned in 1988), anti-microbial treatments to sanitise chicken carcasses (banned in 1997) and growth promoters in animal feed to name but a few.  

European food lovers are also worried by the statistics. According to the 2011 estimates of the US Center for Disease Control, every year roughly 48 million Americans get sick and 3,000 die from food-borne illnesses, whereas in Europe in 2011, those numbers were 70,000 and 93, respectively. 

Aware of the growing resistance to the TTIP, the European Commission (EC) has tried to reassure citizens in its public documents, stating that “Basic laws, like those relating to GMOs or which are there to protect human life and health, animal health and welfare, or environment and consumer interests will not be part of the negotiations”.

GMOs are also a core issue in the debate. According to the US Grocery Manufacturers Association, 70-80% of the food consumed in America contains genetically modified ingredients. And while the EC has reiterated that it does not intend to relax EU regulations, Gaetano Pascale, president of Slow Food Italia, one of the signatory groups of Stop TTIP, doesn’t feel all that reassured. “I believe the Commission has good intentions”, he says, “but how can we check once the barriers are lifted? Percentage thresholds above which a product must be reported as GMO are different in the United States”.

According to the EU, the treaty will boost European exports to the US. In particular, exports of high valued-added products – such as wine, liquor, cheese, cured meats and chocolate – will benefit. Thus far they've been hindered by tariff barriers and other measures. In short, it will be a good deal for both American foodies – who will be able to enjoy Gorgonzola, champagne or Jamón Serrano more readily – and European companies.

Last December, the association of European farmers Copa-Cogeca signed a declaration in favour of the negotiations, yet Secretary-General Pekka Pesonen remains cautious: “There is much potential because many of the 320 million Americans are interested in European products. But we do not support in any way a lowering of European safety standards, which would question the credibility of our whole food production process”.

According to a report published by the EU Parliament in July 2014, European food exports to the US would rise by 60%, while goods imported from the US would increase by 120% by 2025. The findings state: “If trade is liberalised without regulatory convergence, EU producers may face adverse competitive effects”, yet if regulatory convergence “were to level the playing field, there would be a risk of downward harmonisation”.

Lastly, there is the question of designations of geographic origin (GI), the legal value of which the US does not always recognise. The European Commission intends to negotiate “protection for an agreed list of EU GIs and enforcement of rules against their misuse”. But this would not prevent American imitations designated with terms such as ”style” or “type” from showing up on European supermarket shelves at lower prices.

“Our system is founded upon the specificity and brand recognition of foods. We fear that territoriality will no longer be a defining value with the treaty”, says Slow Food Italia’s Pascale. And detailed labelling, which would give consumers the necessary information to make informed choices, is encountering resistance in the US. 

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