The EU’s distortion of public health unfairly hurts US agricultural produce
President Trump’s trip to Davos has continued a long tradition of American presidents complaining about unfair barriers to American trade. He certainly is correct about the European Union’s (EU) misuse of an otherwise good public health principle, known as the Precautionary Principle, to ban American agricultural produce.
The precautionary principle in essence says look before you leap and consider uncertainty. It is “enshrined” in EU founding documents. But much to the distress of the rest of the world, the lack of a rigorous definition allows it to be flexibly applied to protect European agriculture.
In a landmark 1998 decision, reaffirmed in 2006, the World Trade Organization sided with the U.S. against an EU ban on importing beef from cattle that had previously been treated with growth hormones. In contravention to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, the EU had not demonstrated that such beef caused any risk to the consumer.
The U.S. and other countries were allowed to institute compensatory tariffs to make up for losses after the EU refused to reverse its ban.
In December, 2016 the outgoing Obama administration expressed longstanding frustration with the failure of the EU to comply with agreements to open its market to U.S. beef and announced the intention to further implement compensatory tariffs against EU products,
GMO grain, in which the U.S. has long had leadership role, was also banned by the EU based on the precautionary principle. After again being unable to demonstrate any health risk, the EU retreated from another World Trade Organization defeat by developing a complex and convoluted process preventing U.S. and other non-EU farmers from significant EU market penetration while allowing EU farmers time to catch up.
European countries also use the precautionary principle to ban American chicken products by claiming that washing carcasses in chlorine to disinfect them is ineffective and will cause cancer.
Notably, the European Food Safety Authority, which was formed to provide independent scientific advice to EU decision-makers, has not provided support for the EU’s contention that health risks occur through eating American chicken, beef or grain.
The EU rationale for continuing to limit importation of GMO grains is based in part on the need for labeling to give consumers a choice.
However, the EU has not allowed importation and labeling to give their consumers a choice of chickens washed in chlorine, or meat that comes from cows receiving growth hormone. Even during the frightening mad cow disease episode, which caused over 200 lingering deaths, the EU public was not given the choice of untainted American beef.
The EU’s blatantly unfair agricultural trade practices affect not only the U.S.. An egregious example is the imposition of a ten-fold more stringent safety standard for aflatoxin, a cancer-causing natural food contaminant.
While protecting EU agriculture, this unnecessary stringency cost Sub-Saharan nations, their former colonies and among the poorest in the world, $700 million/year in exports.
An expert review by the World Health Organization and the UN Food and Agricultural Organization found that the EU’s more stringent standard was without significant health benefits. Similarly, despite a drought-induced food shortage, Zambia in 2002 refused to accept donations of American corn for fear of eventually losing their export market to the EU if the GMO corn was used for seed.
Zambian leaders also followed the EU lead in the spurious claim that GMO corn would cause allergic reactions, a more likely outcome from conventional plant breeding practices allowed by the EU.
They also claimed that Zambian citizens were being used as guinea pigs although this corn was routinely eaten by Americans.
The EU’s precautionary approach has broader impacts on trade. The Doha Round to liberalize trade failed in part due to mistrust of the EU’s use of the precautionary principle to subvert any agreement.
The precautionary principle also inhibits agricultural innovation, such as through GMO. To protect ecosystems and biodiversity there needs to be a virtual freeze on the amount of land used by agriculture.
Yet we also need to meet the challenges of providing the 70-100 percent more calories expected to be consumed in 2050 because of population growth and increased per capita caloric intake in the developing world — while simultaneously meeting the challenges to agriculture due to global climate change.
The U.S. is not without unfair trade practices. But, in contrast to the EU, we do not rely on distorting public health science as a means to wrap greed in a green flag. This more readily permits the U.S. to end trade barriers through negotiation than does the EU whose leaders would be falsely seen as bargaining away the health of EU citizens.
But it is in America’s and the world’s interest to reverse EU agricultural trade barriers. President Trump should be supported in doing so.
Bernard D. Goldstein, MD is a professor emeritus and dean emeritus at the University of Pittsburgh Graduate School of Public Health.