Food Safety, The WTO And Europe: A Good Ol’ Party

fsThe European Union’s recent submission to the World Trade Organisation negotiations on farm trade liberalisation dealing with the issue of animal welfare (see AE1907, 30.6.00, EP/4) is symptomatic of the growing concern in the European agriculture industry that the increasing burden of animal welfare and environmental costs on the livestock industry is not being reflected in international trade regulations. The animal welfare issue is only part of the non-trade – but trade related – objections to complete liberalisation which the EU can be expected to raise during the course of the negotiation.

There is little doubt that the European livestock industry now feels seriously threatened by what it regards as ‘unfair competition’ from producers outside the EU whom it believes are not carrying the same levels of production standard and marketing costs. The European Commission’s submissions to the WTO can be expected to reflect these fears.

The livestock industry feels particularly threatened by the growing demands from consumers and the food trade for tougher animal welfare rules; the resulting legislation is undoubtedly a source of increased costs. It is for this reason that the Commission has compiled and is about to publish a report on animal welfare legislation in non-EU exporters who supply the EU with animal products.

Consumers demanding to be informed

In its WTO submission, the Commission points out that: “There is an increasing awareness among consumers and producers about the effects that breeding and farming techniques may have on animals, on their health and welfare and, not least, on the environment. More and more, consumers claim their right to make informed choice between products, including products produced to different welfare standards. To enable them to make such a choice they want to be informed about how farm animals are kept, transported and slaughtered. The producers, on whom such demands are made, want a stable and coherent basis on which to provide such information.”

The Commission argues that “There is a growing concern along consumers, producers, as well as welfare organisations, that while the WTO is working to enhance the framework for the liberalisation of international trade, which is the primary purpose of the WTO, the WTO does not provide a framework within which to address animal welfare issues. They particularly fear that in the absence of such a framework, animal welfare standards, notably those concerning farm animal welfare, could be undermined if there is no way of ensuring that agricultural and food products produced to domestic animal welfare standards are not simply replaced by imports produced to lower standards.”

This concern with the way livestock-based foods are produced extends not only to the welfare of the animals but also of course to the safeness, or otherwise, of the meat and dairy products which are supplied to the market.

Traceability is key issue

The long list of food safety ‘scares’ in Europe during the 1990s have fuelled increasing consumer concern and therefore stimulated the increasing need to ensure that all contributors to the delivery of food to the consumer are made responsible for their role in production, processing and handling of food. This has inevitably meant that the source of any consignment and the hands through which it passes must be traceable, with increasing costs to the producer.

Even before the BSE, salmonella, listeria and food contamination scares of the past decade, traceability was already pre-occupying the retail food trade, with major supermarket chains in Europe insisting that their supplies should be traceable right back to the farm.

Increasingly, supermarkets want to be able to refer back to the slaughterhouse, the dairy, the processing and packing plant via product codes, which could then allow them to trace the product back to the day on which the animal was slaughtered, the livestock handler, and the farm of origin, or a product processed or packed. This allows supermarkets to pass on responsibility for any food scare or quality complaint.

With between 50 and 70% of the European Union’s s food trade now controlled by the supermarkets (depending on member state), farmers have been increasingly forced to participate in costly traceability schemes.

This has serious implications for overseas suppliers of the European market. As their costs of marketing increase as a result of these demands from the food marketing chain, EU farmers are insisting that the same restrictions and conditions should be imposed on all food imports.

White Paper objectives

fswThis aspect of food safety is a major feature of the recent White Paper on future food safety legislation published by the Commission. Control of food quality and purity ‘from plough to plate’, or from ‘stable to table’, is a major objective of this legislative programme.

The objective of the White Paper on food safety, in the Commission’s words, “is to achieve the highest possible level of consumer health protection in the food sector throughout Europe. The guiding principle is that food safety must be underpinned by a comprehensive, integrated approach.” Inevitably, this loads increased costs onto the producer.

The White Paper promises an intensification of this process. Besides the establishment of a European Food Authority, as a cornerstone of the proposed strategy, the Commission envisages a programme of more than 24 legislative measures being approved over the next three years, “consolidating the principles of food safety such as the responsibility of feed manufacturers, the traceability of products, risk analysis and application of the precautionary principle.”

In addition to the disease and contamination aspects of food safety, consumer pressures are increasingly demanding that such aspects as standards on animal welfare, pesticide use, and environmental acceptability should form important parts of food retailers’ requirements from their producer suppliers. In the battle for market share supermarkets want to be able to reassure their customers about the way in which the food they sell is produced and how animals used in food production are treated.

As the supermarkets’ need to meet consumers concerns grows, so the requirement for influence and control over food production methods grows. This has stimulated the proliferation of farm assurance schemes and protocols throughout the EU.

The pre-occupation with the need for traceability is most noticeable in the European livestock industry, with rapid growth of farm assurance schemes throughout the 1990s. These schemes lay down conditions on such all-encompassing factors as origin of stock, feed composition and storage, housing and handling facilities and medicines and veterinary treatments. In Germany, Sweden, Denmark, the Netherlands and the UK, such schemes now cover almost all the food supplied to major retail chains. Farmers are not convinced that the same standards are being applied to exporting countries supplying the European market.

WTO recognition for qualitative issues

Hence the Commission’s complaint in its WTO submission: “When a country provides for animal welfare standards that go beyond those applied by other trading partners, this can have a number of effects. Consumers may not be provided with coherent information on the welfare standards to which imported products are produced, and domestic producers may be economically disadvantaged.”

The Commission suggests to the WTO a number of ways in which animal welfare considerations could be incorporated in trade agreements. These could include the development of multilateral agreements dealing with the protection of animal welfare; appropriate labelling, showing that products have been produced in compliance with agreed animal welfare standards; and the legitimising of the payment of compensation for meeting animal welfare standards which cannot be recovered from the market.

On this latter point, the Commission says: “High animal welfare standards can increase costs to producers over and above any possible increased returns from the market. Trade liberalisation can exacerbate this effect and lead to unequal conditions of competition, and even to drive down welfare standards in exporting countries. This could fuel opposition to trade liberalisation and the WTO. It may therefore be necessary to consider whether it would be legitimate to provide for some sort of compensation to contribute to the additional costs where it can be clearly shown that these additional costs stem directly from the higher standards in question.”

While there are undoubtedly elements of traditional European protectionism in its position on the animal welfare issue, it does also contain important strands which reflect the genuine concerns of European consumers about animal welfare and which also echo the broader international concerns of many of the pressure groups present at Seattle last November. Food health and safety, biotechnology and environmental safeguards are all related issues which, while being treated sceptically by official negotiators, can be expected to receive wide general public approval.

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