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A Free-Trade Deal Is Threatening the Future of Europe's Food

The controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership deal would make trade between Europe and the US far easier than it is now—but many are worried that it could undermine food quality everywhere.
Photo via Flickr user Benjamin Vander Steen

Considering how difficult it is to scrub off the pungent odour of chlorine after a swim, it must be equally as difficult to remove the same scent from a chicken. Presumably, that's what food manufacturers stateside have to do after they've bathed their poultry in the stuff.

Maybe swimming pool-chicken isn't your thing. Understandable. But what about a Cornish pasty from Detroit? Or perhaps some cheese that purports to be from a small village in France, but was churned out by a factory in the Midwest?


Some fear that this menu, at least in part, could become a reality through the controversial Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). TTIP is a free trade deal that's currently under negotiation between Europe and the US. Much of the process has been carried out in secret. But the potential ramifications of the deal are now becoming apparent, causing real concern that foods with Protected Geographical Indication (PGI) might suffer, and that food practices employed in America, but not in Europe, will be approved to suit a more open market.

Those worries aren't without merit: TTIP is designed to make trade between Europe and the US easier, essentially removing locked gates. Today, the EU takes a much firmer stance on its agricultural practices than the US does; in America, food producers often use growth hormones, pesticides, and other additives that are banned in Europe.

Nothing's been decided on TTIP as things lie, but there is much at stake. The EU Commission says the deal could benefit the continent by as much as 119 billion euros a year.

Now, recent concerns for the future of PGIs—lawfully protected regional specialities such as Mowbray pork pies and Cumberland sausage—have struck a chord with many. Business propositions are daunting and hard to charter, but put Parma ham in jeopardy and eyebrows are quickly raised.

Recently, commentators have mused that TTIP could banish PGI safeguards, meaning that Black Forest ham could be produced, well, outside of the Black Forest. German Minister of Food and Agriculture Christian Schmidt argued this month that PGIs might have to be compromised if Europe wants to compete in the US. He told Der Spiegel: "If we want to take advantage of the opportunities of free trade with the huge American market, we can no longer have every type of sausage and cheese each protected as a speciality."


More than 1,000 food and drink products are currently designated with a PGI. But if TTIP does undermine these legal protections, it could mean that manufacturers in the US would be able to produce gourmet specialities far removed from their true home.

Following Schmidt's comments, however, the European Commission dismissed concerns that protected foods could lose their designation in Europe. "These discussions are about the protection of European intellectual property (geographical indications) in the United States, not about lowering food quality standards in Europe," Jennifer Hutton, a press officer at the Commission, tells me. "There's no question at all of weakening the existing protection for recognised EU products on the EU market."

Parma ham, Champagne, and other European specialities may remain protected, but what about the other way around? Could the TTIP deal open up Europe to foods produced using pesticides, growth hormones, and other agricultural practices currently employed in the US?

Nick Dearden, director of the social justice organisation World Development Movement, seems to think so. He notes that, while the EU Commission has said that protected-origin food isn't open for change under TTIP, US businesses are seeking exactly those kinds of compromises.

"[American businesses] have been really clear that they see protected food, as well as European bans on GM, chlorine-washed chicken, and hormone-pumped beef as 'trade barriers.' That's what TTIP is all about—seeing every sort of protection and regulation in the public interest as a 'barrier' to making a bigger profit and getting rid of it," Dearden tells me.

Dearden believes that despite the European Commission's claims, food quality standards could eventually dissolve following TTIP's mutual recognition. "They might not happen immediately," he says, but TTIP could mark an opening for future changes.

The Institute of Agriculture and Policy (IATP), which analyzes how global trade agreements impact domestic farm and food policies, is even more alarmed by the potential impact of TTIP. Listing ten reasons why TTIP is bad for Europe—from the bleach-treated chicken to the elimination of duties on frozen fast-food meat—the IATP writes that "[agribusiness] on both sides is pushing to roll back regulations that hinder their profits at the expense of food safety, farmers and ranchers, consumers and animal welfare."

TTIP's potential impact remains unclear. Protected foods may remain protected, and some of the more unsavory agricultural practices used in America dismissed. But for TTIP to work, compromises are likely. Those fragments of US industry methods might manage to find their way across the Atlantic—small, seemingly insignificant additions that together could curdle the European custard.