Four American senators have expressed concern that possible trade talks between the European Union and United States may not dismantle longstanding EU barriers to US pork, beef, poultry and other farm products.
"Our trade negotiators must demand of EU officials that barriers to US agricultural products be addressed in any potential trade agreement," the senators said on Thursday (24 January) in a letter urging Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, to schedule a hearing with US trade officials.
The United States and the EU have been discussing for more than a year the possibility of launching free trade talks and are widely expected in coming weeks or months to make a decision to take that step.
The senators – Republicans Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and John Thune of South Dakota – said they wanted a hearing because Congress has not passed legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority, giving the administration specific guidelines for any talks with the EU.
"It is important we know where the discussions with the EU stand, and what exactly has been discussed regarding barriers to agricultural products, so we can determine for ourselves whether the administration is adequately addressing this key trade priority," the senators said.
The United States has been frustrated for years by what it considers the EU's "non-scientific" approach to food safety.
The EU has blocked imports of US genetically modified maize and soybeans, poultry treated with chlorine dioxide and beef with lactic acid to kill pathogens and pork produced from hogs given ractopamine, which promotes lean meat growth.
American trade officials have said they are looking for progress from the EU on agriculture barriers before talks begin.
That is believed to be one of the main reasons that a high-level US-EU working group report on the expected negotiations that was due in December still has not been released.
"I know there is a lot of interest in whether we will decide with our EU colleagues to launch trade negotiations," said Andrea Mead, a spokeswoman for the US Trade Representative's office. "Our work in that regard is ongoing. We want to take the time to get the substance right so that any agreement we might pursue would maximise job-supporting economic opportunities."
The EU-US trade relationship is the biggest in the world, with more than €1.8 billion of goods and services traded every day between the European Union and the United States.
The Irish presidency has made it a priority of its seventh presidency of the EU to finalise pending free trade agreements with third countries. Such deals are expected to deliver gains in growth and jobs, at a time when EU domestic demand is stagnant because of the eurocrisis and austerity programmes.
The presidency will hold an informal meeting of trade ministers which is supposed to lead to trade deals with Canada, India, Japan and the United States.