GM corn, feta cheese: hurdles for EU-U.S. trade talks

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Genetically modified crops, chlorine-washed chicken, beef quotas and a fight over who can call Greek-style cheese 'feta' all block the way toward the world's largest free-trade deal.

U.S. and European Union negotiators will determine a list of sticking points this week in Washington during their third round of talks, and food issues are expected to be chief among them.

At a time of low economic growth on both sides of the Atlantic, EU-U.S. free-trade negotiations seek to integrate two markets representing almost half the world's economy in a sophisticated agreement going far beyond lowering tariffs.

But food is different and the old issues that have bedevilled many trade talks around the world are likely to complicate the ambitious Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) between Brussels and Washington.

The recently agreed EU-Canada free-trade talks, known as CETA, dragged on for months before Brussels agreed to let in some 45,000 more tonnes a year of Canadian beef and 75,000 tonnes of pork free of tariffs.

Even if just a fraction of the EU's output of 7.7 million tonnes of beef and 20 million tonnes of pork, the imports will be high-value hams and hind cuts of beef, a lot for Irish and French farmers to swallow. A U.S. deal would let in more.

"You will destroy the market. The U.S. won't agree on an equivalent quota lower than that of Canada. For beef, their exports are double the size," said Jean-Luc Meriaux, secretary general of the European Livestock and Meat Trading Union.

"Two products paid for CETA. Beef and pork. We fear they will also pay for the U.S. deal," he continued.

Europe takes a precautionary approach to food safety, making it far more difficult and time-consuming to clear new practices and to see products reach the mouths of consumers.

The U.S. farm lobby is not amused. A group of 47 U.S. food and agricultural associations wrote to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman to express their concerns.

"Our optimism for the TTIP negotiations may have been premature or misplaced," they said, arguing that restrictions are often based on perception and politics, not science.

Must Feta Be Greek?

The European Union has ruled out importing meat from animals injected with hormones and said that it will not simply open the door to GM crops. So far, the European Union has allowed just two crops to be grown in Europe. A potential third has been awaiting approval for 12 years.

Of some 450 commercial GM strains, the bloc has cleared about 50 for import as food or feed. The EU takes in about 30 million tonnes a year for its cattle, pigs and poultry, but EU supermarkets do not dare stock GM food for consumers.

An exasperated U.S. industry says Europe has no need to change its rules, but must consider whether it is necessary to label GM product as such, and speed up the process of approvals.

Some 74 GM products were awaiting EU clearance at the end of 2012, with authorisation taking almost four years, compared with two in the United States.

Resistance is not uniform. The EU livestock industry says that if more GM feeds were cleared it would reduce the cost of verifying that imports contain no traces of non-approved crops.

"Today, a ship is transporting an EU-approved product, but we need to know what was it transporting before." said Meriaux. "Who is paying for all that? The EU sector."

Elsewhere, progress has been made.

The United States said last month it would comply with international standards for the prevention of mad cow disease, potentially reopening a market closed to EU beef since 1998.

The EU has lifted bans on imports of U.S. beef washed with lactic acid and of live swine. The U.S. poultry industry wants the EU to accept chickens washed with chlorine.

EU consumers are suspicious of U.S. poultry treated with chlorine dioxide and beef treated with lactic acid to kill pathogens, concerned that using such chemicals make the food unsafe. The United States says there is ample evidence that they are safe and the issue infuriates U.S. farmers, who see them as nothing other than veiled protectionism for European farmers.

The European Union meanwhile is determined to write into any deal its system of geographical indications, which protects countries' or regions' exclusive right to product names, such as France's champagne, Greek Feta cheese or Italian Parma ham.

U.S. groups say this demand "defies credibility" because in the cause of free trade, U.S. producers would, for example, no longer be able to market cheeses as "feta".

The United States also has its own product bans, such as raw-milk cheese that is not aged for at least 60 days, barring some French cheeses, such as blue-veined Roquefort.

Some EU sausages cannot access the U.S. market because of a zero tolerance to listeria in fermented meat products.

"The United States has told us that they will very likely not change their minds on this," said Dirk Dobbelaere, secretary general of EU meat processing association Clitravi.

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