Trade Talks Put Health Safeguards in Danger

Our health and safety may be put at risk in a regulatory race-to-the-bottom.

The U.S. and the European Union are beginning trade negotiations on a major new treaty designed to strengthen the lagging economies on both sides of the pond. Unfortunately, if history is any guide, the negotiations threaten to wreak havoc on our public health and safety protections.

The possible result? More food recalls, unsafe medical devices, new hazardous chemicals, and a host of other potential dangers.

To reduce barriers to trade, the negotiators writing the proposed Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement (TAFTA) are being encouraged to "harmonize" American and EU regulations on products ranging from genetically modified foods to drugs and medical equipment. But the EU and U.S. have wildly different standards for many products, making it difficult to agree on solutions.

We can look to the past to see that free trade deals have often addressed this problem by seeking the lowest common denominator, not the highest. NAFTA resulted in weaker health protections for the U.S., including lower safety standards for foods imported from Canada and Mexico. Perhaps not coincidentally, in the past year alone the U.S. has suffered outbreaks of foodborne illness due to E. coli-contaminated beef from Canada and salmonella-contaminated papayas from Mexico.

For many special interests, the current TAFTA negotiations provide a new opportunity to weaken regulations on an unprecedented scale. Big businesses -- including the agricultural, pharmaceutical, automotive, and chemical industries -- are expected to pour millions of dollars into lobbying for standards that will do the most for their bottom line, but that could put the rest of us at risk.

One widely discussed threat is to Europe's food and chemical safety laws, which are generally stronger than those in the United States. Lobbyists from the agricultural industry, along with friends in Congress, are using TAFTA as an opportunity to force the European market to weaken their regulations on genetically modified foods in order to accept unlabeled imports from the U.S.

The U.S. pig industry is also pushing to open up the European market. Many U.S. farms use ractopamine hydrochloride to keep pigs lean and boost their growth. The drug is fed to pigs and other animals right up until slaughter, and minute traces have been found in meat. The EU banned its use because of concerns about its effect on human health. However, the trade harmonization process threatens to force our drug laden pork onto other countries.

Another possible European casualty of TAFTA is REACH, the EU's iconic safe chemicals law. REACH allows the European Chemical Agency to put restrictions on how chemicals are produced, sold, and used, in order to protect the public and the environment. By comparison, U.S. chemical rules are woefully outdated and give the EPA far less power to protect consumers. REACH is a model law that we have been trying to replicate in the U.S. and which the chemical industry sees as a direct threat to their profits. The chemical industry will be lobbying hard to weaken REACH, so that they can create a new market across the Atlantic for untested and potentially dangerous chemicals.

On the American side, consumers should be worried about the harmonization of medical regulations between the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and the European Medicines Agency. The FDA is generally stricter than its EU counterpart, so any harmonization is likely to weaken American health protections. One glaring disparity: the EMA does not regulate medical devices such as pacemakers and insulin pumps. This has led to numerous fatalities in Europe, a problem the U.S has avoided thanks in part to the FDA's regulation of these devices. Now lobbying on TAFTA by the European medical industry could put vital FDA protections like this in jeopardy.

American consumers also need to be wary that the U.S. will lift its 16-year-old ban on EU beef imports. Originally put in place due to concerns over mad cow disease, the ban has also protected the U.S. from mislabeled European beef imports containing horse meat.

Fortunately TAFTA is still in the early stages of negotiations so there is time to make sure our decision makers find a better path. As negotiations continue, consumers need to keep a close eye on any proposals that compromise our public health and safety protections.

Economic growth is important for both the United States and the European Union, but it would be a tremendously shortsighted mistake to sacrifice our hard-fought consumer safeguards.