Thursday, May 01, 2008

Not on the side of the angels

If you ever needed any proof that the EU is a backwards-looking, protectionist, self-obsessed and basically malign organisation (not that any is really needed), you need only look at the latest development in the long-running saga of the ban on US poultry.

Reported on The Guardian website yesterday, this piece notes that the European Union's refusal to lift an 11-year-old ban on imports of U.S. poultry "raises doubts about the ability of a new trans-Atlantic forum to resolve disputes."

This is according to Daniel Price, White House international economic affairs adviser, and he is referring to the year-old TEC (Transatlantic Economic Council). Furthermore, in a speech at the US Chamber of Commerce, he went on to say, "This issue has implications that go well beyond the immediate interests of US poultry producers."

He is dead right.

The EU has banned imports of US poultry since April 1997 because US poultry producers use a low-concentration chlorine wash to reduce harmful pathogens, a practice not permitted by the EU's "food safety regime".

In fact, the issue is not "food safety" at all, but naked protectionism. Chlorine washes during poultry processing – especially in spin chillers, the water in which otherwise ends up a bacterial soup, spreading contamination – have long been established as a valuable and powerful tool in the fight against food poisoning and other food-borne disease.

The case is argued by the USDA here but, most damning of all, the EU’s own Food Safety Agency agrees that the use of chlorine washes "…is of no safety concern."

Most damning of all, it was the EU commission which formally put this question to the European Food Safety Agency, asking it "to update the previous opinion expressed by the Scientific Committee on Veterinary Measures Relating to Public Health (SCVPH) on 14-15 April 2003" - which had already supported the practice. The Agency duly considered the issue and its opinion was adopted on 6 December 2005. Yet, since then, the commission has done precisely nothing to lift a wholly unjustified ban.

Behind this, of course, is money. Before the last round of enlargement - the big one - US producers were selling substantial quantities of processed poultry to the former Communist countries. When they joined the EU, and thus adopted EU standards, the trade was blocked and has remained so ever since.

And, despite the unequivocal opinion of the EFSA, the commission is still stalling. Recently, enterprise and industry commissioner G√ľnter Verheugen wrote to Barroso in March asking for the ban to be lifted but, last week Gert Lindemann, Germany's deputy agriculture minister, said the EU was unlikely to lift the ban soon. "We can't solve this problem overnight or in the next four weeks," he says – despite the fact that this has been going on for years.

And guess which country sells the bulk of processed poultry into eastern Europe?

Now, all the EU is prepared to do is to deliver a "progress report" on the issue at the next TEC meeting in Brussels on 13 May, but action there will be none. Unsurprisingly, the US – no paragon of virtue itself when it comes to protectionism – is a tad hacked off.

The really interesting thing though is that chlorine treatment in poultry processing really is a well-established and successful technique for improving food safety. If "Mother Europe" – aka the EU – was really interested in protecting its "children", as the gushing commission tells us it is, far from banning this technique, it would be making it compulsory.

Which all goes to show that, when there is a conflict between the safety needs of "EU citizens" and vested interest, the EU is definitely not on the side of the angels.

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