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Dinner Plate Boundaries: Why Europeans Are Afraid of Importing American Food 

Tuesday, Oct 28 2014
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A sunny Saturday morning at the Ferry Plaza Farmers Market. A few dozen people are strolling through stands that are nearly collapsing under the weight of fruits, vegetables, juice bottles, and jam jars. It's a highly harmonious atmosphere, sealed by the shadow of a Mahatma Ghandi statue –- but it takes only a single question to disturb this peace. Just ask about food imported from China and the visitors get so horrified they nearly drop their organic apples.

"I've heard that they use so many chemicals that sometimes it causes explosions and whole fields burn down," says a fiftysomething man selling baskets of fresh produce from local farmers. Other shoppers have heard of toxic baby food, radioactive sushi, and other scary tales.

Like these Saturday shoppers, many Bay Area residents are concerned about the quality of food imported from China. But what they don't know is that Europeans are equally anxious about food imported from the United States.

Currently there are big campaigns running against American food in Europe. They're a response to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a proposed free trade agreement between the European Union and the United States that should be finalized at the end of this year.

This March, a proposed draft was leaked that made it clear how easy it would be for American food companies to export their products to Europe, undermining Europe's methods of risk assessment in the process.

Within a few weeks, European streets were inundated with posters and banners saying, "No to TTIP! Fight for your rights!," most of them launched by Greenpeace. Jürgen Knirsch, sustainable consumption expert of Greenpeace Central and Eastern Europe, is vocally against the TTIP mandate.

"U.S. exporters of corn, soy, pork, or chicken don't only want to sell their genetically modified crops, chlorinated chicken, and hormone meat on the European market. They are also keen to knock down the pillars of European consumer protection," he says.

The symbol in the fight against the TTIP in Europe is the so-called "chlorine chicken." In the United States, chicken meat gets disinfected with chlorinated water, a practice that has been forbidden in Europe since 1997.

The treatment with chlorine is not unhealthy in and of itself, but European animal conservationists are afraid that hygiene standards for industrial livestock farming go down with its use.

Why should you raise chickens under sanitary conditions when you can just disinfect the meat with these harsher methods anyway? The European Union is also worried that the disinfection treatment could raise dangerously resistant germs or kill natural and healthy bacteria.

It's the same with genetically engineered food: There is no clear scientific proof that it can influence health in a bad way, but the European Union says that there are still no long-term studies that can are completely reassuring, and so Europeans are warier of it than their American counterparts.

The list goes on. Europe has forbidden the trade and import of hormone-treated meat since the 1980s because of "not justifiable health risks." The U.S. and Canada have fought against this sanction, including by enacting high customs taxes, but Europe has stood firm — so far. With the TTIP, this ban could fall. Also of concern are America's allowances for European-banned fruit pesticides like diphenylamin (DPA), used on apples and pears to slow down the skin's browning.

Of course, European farmers are also worried that they will be overrun by cheaper mass-produced food from America. And on the other side of the Atlantic, the American food industry is waiting for its chance to make the big money that Europe's been making on meat exports. In 2012, European meat exports to the U.S. netted $2.1 billion while the U.S. only made $988 million shipping meat to Europe. With the TTIP, that could be reversed.

No wonder American food lobbies are so active. Greenpeace found out that the National Chicken Council, the USA Poultry & Egg Export Council, and the National Turkey Federation put a lot of pressure on the agreement's negotiating party in the U.S. In a letter, they clearly articulated their wish for an "elimination of all non-tariff trade barriers," because otherwise they "do not see how the TTIP is in the interests of our industry, our member companies, our workers, or the tens of thousands of family farmers who grow chicken." To lend weight to their statement, the lobbyist groups put $138,500 into election campaigns for 44 congressman (85 percent Republicans).

But is there really something terribly wrong with American food? Shouldn't Europe be more concerned with the toxic baby food and radioactive sushi coming out of China?

Lauren Sucher of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration says that there is no reason to panic over imported food in the United States. "Foreign inspections are designed to identify potential food safety problems before products arrive in the United States," she says. "Both imported and domestically produced foods must meet the same food safety requirements."

The question Europeans are asking is whether those safety requirements are safe enough.

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Tina Goebel

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