EU consumers should not be worried about safety standards for food and health being jeopardised by negotiators in the free-trade talks between the EU and the US, insisted Cecilia Malmström.
As the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) negotiations enter, presumably, their last phase, the Commissioner has assured consumer groups that the ‘precautionary principle’ will be kept in any eventual agreement.
As the EU is widely considered more precautionary than the US in several key policy areas, including consumer policy, food safety and health, many consumer rights groups are concerned that TTIP will allow policymaking that could act as an obstacle to regulations that are in Europe’s best interests.
Recently, one EU consumer organisation launched a petition to keep cosmetics regulation out of TTIP, saying that the rules on the two sides of the Atlantic differ so greatly that harmonisation would be impossible. For example, while the EU has banned 1,378 chemical substances from being used in cosmetics, the US has only banned 11.
Speaking at an event in Brussels on Tuesday (26 January) organised by the Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, EU Trade Commissioner Malmström said that the influence of TTIP over domestic policies and the precautionary principle is brought up no matter where she travels in Europe.
“I fully understand why people are concerned. They think there is a threat to this principle, which is such a core element of our values. In this area, we have been really careful and listened to the concerns,” the Commissioner said.
However, TTIP can actually make the precautionary principle better, she argued, as “one of the benefits of intensified regulatory cooperation is that we can pool the resources, competences and expertise that we have here in Europe with the one that exists in the US”.
This means that regulatory approaches in the future will be based on stronger science and evidence, according to Malmström.
Different approaches to health claims
The Director General of the European Consumer Organisation (BEUC), Monique Goyens, pointed out that Europe is often accused by US companies of not having a science-based approach.
“They sometimes even say that the approach is ‘emotional’. We don’t agree with that. We want to have a science and risk approach,” Goyens said.
Science is not an independent art, she mentioned, as more and more is being funded by the industry, and this contradiction should be taken into account.
However, Julie Brill, Commissioner at the US Federal Trade Commission (FTC), said that in her view a cost-benefit analysis and the precautionary principle should not be so sharply separated.
“We will miss a lot of the nuances if we insist that cost-benefit analysis and the precautionary principle are in separate and irreconcilable outlooks,” she added.
The FTC has taken many health, cosmetics and food companies in the United States to court over unsubstantial marketing labelling, said Brill, proving that US consumer laws are also effective. One trial included a popular juice product which was advertised as having a number of health benefits, including preventing heart disease.
“We sued, had a trial and then two levels of appeal on this case which the FTC won because we were able to show that these claims were not adequately substantiated. That required a deep dive into the science behind what the advertisers were claiming,” Brill highlighted.
The EU’s rules for consumer products are stronger still, Goyens claimed, as the burden of proof lies with the industry when it comes to health claims prior to market access, not companies.
“They are not allowed to market a product with a claim if they have not proven to the regulator, the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA), that it is substantiated. 80% of the health claims have been rejected,” she added.