Food fights: Health & safety under international trade law


EXPLAINERS: Concepts in 300 Words or Less

Food standards are one of the main sticking points in US-UK trade talks. The UK applies a variety of restrictions on agricultural products in the interest of public health and safety, including a the widely publicized ban on chlorinated chicken. The US argues that these regulations are unjustified and discriminatory.

How common are these trade barriers and why are they controversial?

With some exceptions, standards on growing, processing, and packaging food are generally higher in Europe than in the US. This includes limits on the use of hormones for animal growth, certain pesticides, and, most famously, GMOs.

These limits are common around the world. Under the global trade regime, countries are permitted to implement “sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures.” That’s a fancy way of saying: health and safety standards.

The idea is that governments have an interest in protecting consumers from dangerous food products, such as beef contaminated with “mad cow” disease or chicken with salmonella.

These policies are controversial for several reasons.

Part of the problem is the complexity of the rules. The World Trade Organization treaty text includes lengthy, highly technical provisions relating to SPS. And policy decisions are shaped by scientific studies that are poorly understood and sometimes contested. As a result, it is not always clear when restrictions are “legitimate.”

The other problem with SPS restrictions is that it’s easy to accuse governments of having a conflict of interest.

This is exactly Woody Johnson’s point in recent comments. America’s ambassador to the UK stated that trade restrictions were the result of UK industries with a “protectionist agenda” and that arguments over the safety of US products were “misleading.”

It’s no surprise that food standards lead to frequent disagreement.

WTO members have raised over 450 “specific trade concerns.” STCs arise when governments question the legitimacy of trade restrictions based on health and safety.

There have also been 48 formal disputes, including previous clashes between the US and EU over poultry.

Now, Theresa May’s government will have to decide whether to compromise on US demands. The issue is hotly contested in the UK, where resistance to rolling back standards has been building for several years.