EU is about to set dangerous precedent for food imports

EU is about to set dangerous precedent for food imports
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The world appears to be hell-bent on a protracted trade war, making this a turbulent but delicate moment for the global economy.

And the EU is about to open the door to yet more escalating conflict over exports and imports — one that also puts animal welfare and food security on the line.

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The European Parliament is widely expected to pass a bill in October that will require all foreign livestock producers to follow the same rules as EU farmers when it comes to animal medicines or be barred from exporting to the bloc.

This means, for example, that meat, milk and egg exporters in countries including the U.S., Brazil or Australia must use veterinary medicines and treatments in the same manner as European farmers, despite facing different disease threats and environmental circumstances.

Not only does this create a dilemma for veterinarians and producers wanting to treat animals in line with their own country’s legislation, it is incompatible with the rules of the World Trade Organization (WTO). 

This new provision, made under the guise of protecting antibiotics from overuse or misuse, is not supported by scientific evidence, as required by the WTO. 

Like other WTO member governments, the EU has both the right and the responsibility to protect the health of its citizens. However, it must do so within the agreed framework of WTO rules.

The EU cannot apply a blanket presumption prohibiting the importation of animals or animal products from countries where antibiotics are permitted under conditions different from those of the EU. Under the WTO treaty, food safety rules must be based on science rather than presumptions. 

The bill is also problematic for at least three other reasons.

First, this kind of “reciprocity” requirement could work both ways — and pave the way for new tariffs or other trade rows. 

Other countries could equally apply restrictions on products from EU countries to meet their own national criteria. This could wreak havoc with international agribusiness and, potentially, food security. 

Second, it sets a legal and trade precedent. Similar restrictions could be introduced for other sectors or by other countries, which could impact regulated industries that also support human health, such as pharmaceuticals.

Finally, this bill opens up the EU to the possibility of legal challenge in the WTO, which is the last thing anyone would want, least of all the EU. 

Every case brought to the WTO to challenge food safety regulations has established a violation, including with respect to the EU’s ban on imports of beef treated with growth-promoting hormones. 

In other words, where food safety regulations do not have a valid scientific basis, they fail to withstand scrutiny by the WTO.

It’s clear that other countries are concerned about what the EU is about to do, not least because it is inconsistent with what was agreed when the WTO was established over 20 years ago.

To date, the European Commission has not offered a satisfactory response to these concerns, creating anxiety among big exporters like the U.S., Brazil and Australia. 

In the name of free and fair international commerce the EU should consider carefully before joining the global trade war.

Brendan McGivern is an international trade lawyer and Partner of Counsel at White and Case LLP, a firm that advises clients from a range of industries, including pharmaceuticals, in trade matters. He is the former head of dispute settlement at the Canadian Mission to the World Trade Organization.