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​With TTIP consumer protection will be a privilege of the rich

Mark Bergfeld is a writer and activist based in Cologne, Germany and London, UK. He tweets @mdbergfeld

Published time: July 28, 2014 14:58
Reuters / David Gray

At the end of last week, a draft chapter from TTIP was leaked to the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP).

The leaked document on food safety, animal and plant health comes closer to a work of abstract art than a report on consumer protection. This is particularly worrying given that negotiators continue to discuss the issue in secret.

For some time now civil society and environmental organizations have been raising concerns over whether genetically-modified food will be labeled appropriately; whether antibiotics will be allowed in our food; or, whether chlorine-rinsed chicken will find its way onto Europe’s domestic market. Surprise! Surprise! Nowhere does the document address these.

While media outlets such as the Wall Street Journal and Washington Post have been quick to point out NGO’s fearmongering and scaremongering tactics over so-called ‘Frankenfood’, silence has filled the airwaves over a document that will give unprecedented powers to multi-national food companies and agri-business.

Minimizing negative trade effects?

In the language of minimizing “negative trade effects” TTIP’s food safety policies aim to abolish all barriers to trade between the EU and the USA. These include societal, ethical or environmental concerns but also national bodies and quality controls who seek to uphold high standards. The treaty’s attempt to harmonize standards might sound like a good idea at first glance. However it would abolish the safeguards which have protected European consumers from food borne illnesses and environmental hazards so far. International setting bodies such as Codex and big food exporters could establish their own standards leading to cost-cutting practices and thus leading to lower standards overall.

This is highlighted by TTIP’s proposal that “the importing party shall recognize for trade the health status of zones, as determined by the exporting party”. In other words, the port of entry inspection – one of the most important steps in food safety management – will be replaced with an exporter country certification process. This is every food exporter’s wet dream as the import country would lose its power to block unsafe food from entering. This would have devastating consequences for European food safety where 20 percent of all seafood imports are controlled, for example.

It does not take a genius to understand that the document is the result of lobbying efforts by the meat and grocery industries. In fact, Article 4 shows that negotiators are keen to enforce a single framework of authorization and certification allowing international setting bodies such as Codex to set the rules for meat imports. Or worse, companies’ own private quality assessments would suffice. In light of this, the fearmongering by NGOs does not seem too unreasonable after all.

Reuters / Ueslei Marcelino

Good Europe vs. the bad USA?

So far the much of the debate has centered on how low quality produce from the US would swamp the European markets. This is a mistake. The horsemeat scandal in 2013 and the on-going poultry scandal in the UK show that European food standards do not necessarily put public health before private profit. Hormone-treated US beef might be banned in Europe since the late 1980s. Yet this did not safeguard Europe from ‘Mad Cow Disease’. In fact, the US has tighter regulations and more advanced standards when it comes to banning ruminant materials in livestock feed.

Both the USA and the EU want to go ahead with TTIP and deregulate the food imports and exports judging by the leaked document. By no means, is the EU being held hostage by the Evil Empire. Nationalist discourses about the superiority of German, French or British food might garner voter support, but does not reflect the reality that all the big parties have been on the deregulation frenzy for decades. This has allowed them to externalize the costs on to the environment and consumers’ health.

If TTIP goes ahead it will also weaken the position of the countries of the Global South which uphold protectionist measures against food imports from the North. Lower energy, transport and regulation costs in the United States and Europe would price out products from the Global South and most importantly pave the way to force countries of the Global South to lift their protective import policies on food. In effect, TTIP’s food policies would exacerbate the global divergences and accelerate the on-going food crisis in the poorest regions of the world.

AFP Photo

Consumer protection is not a lifestyle choice

Food standards in the US and EU are low enough as they are. One does not need to be a vegetarian to know that the current model of food production and distribution is toxic. Time again, peoples’ lives have been put at risk. Food borne illness poses a yearly economic burden of $77.7 billion in the United States, according to a study published in the Journal of Food Protection. In the UK, for example, 250,000 people get ill from poultry products a year. With TTIP these figures will rise exponentially.

The EU’s precautionary principle and farm-to-fork approach appear superior to the US’s decontamination strategies which solely focus on the end product. Unfortunately the debates focus on which method is more scientific robust rather than which serves the public and the environment instead. This is the consequence of decade-long dominance of big food and agribusiness.

But even organic alternatives are no solution. According to a number of studies there is no significant difference between organic food and conventional edibles in nutrients. Thus, it is not enough to be a vegetarian, or buy Fair Trade instead of ordinary produce. The slogan “consume to change the world” rings as hollow today as never before.

The latest IATP leak reveals once again that TTIP negotiators, big food and agribusiness are playing with our health and the environment. It is beyond question that companies’ very own control mechanisms have never served the public. But at least they do not claim to do so unlike our politicians. European Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht, for example, said earlier this year “we won’t be changing our food safety laws in the TTIP. These issues are just not on the table.” The documents show that this is nothing short of a lie. And if negotiators start to claim that this is not the final version or subject to interpretation one thing has become obvious: TTIP will make consumer protection the privilege of the rich rather than a right enjoyed by all.

The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.