CETA, Regulatory Cooperation and Food Safety

Summary

European Union member state parliaments have the right and responsibility to ratify or cancel the EU’s trade deal with Canada, in spite of its preemptive entering into force on 21 September 2017. However, from this day onward many CETA provisions, including those relevant to regulatory cooperation, will apply provisionally in the absence of unanimous endorsement of member state parliaments. In the interest of an informed decision, member state parliaments must urgently confront a series of critical questions regarding CETA, including its implications for European food and agriculture, EU law, and the precautionary principle.

CETA, in common with all trade agreements, will reduce tariffs in order to increase cross-border trade. However, CETA goes well beyond this traditional focus, and to an unprecedented degree seeks to influence the development of domestic policies in the EU and Canada, with the goal of reducing business costs and limiting regulation. Stronger EU food and agricultural policies are most at risk of weakening.

Agricultural and food standards are among those targeted by CETA’s focus on eliminating so-called ‘non-tariff barriers’. Food systems differ significantly between Canada and the European Union. Canada has weaker food safety standards than the EU, and a farm economy more heavily dependent on chemical inputs and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). These factors effectively prohibit increased Canadian exports of key products to the EU, creating a powerful economic incentive for Canada and its largely industrialised agricultural sector to weaken or eliminate EU food and agricultural policies that stand in their way.

More stringent EU rules include, for instance, stricter limitations on the production and sale of genetically modified (GM) crops and food products, mandatory labelling for food with GM ingredients, and for many products, identifying the country of origin (see also Briefing Paper 2). EU rules also restrict the use of growth hormones and antimicrobial chemical washes in meat production and processing, and include stronger animal welfare protections and restricting cloning. (See also Briefing Paper 3).

CETA incorporates a toolbox of deregulatory measures strongly advocated by transnational corporations. These include 1.) requiring licensing regulations to be ‘as simple as possible’, 2.) so-called ‘regulatory cooperation’ initiatives to synchronise regulations over time toward a single transatlantic standard, 3.) special rules to promote trade in biotechnology, and 4.) new risk assessment standards that will undermine the EU’s more precautionary approach to regulation, especially in the application of the precautionary principle where scientific information is limited or not definitive.

Canada’s prior experience in implementing the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) illustrates the threat to legislation. The high degree of integration within the U.S. and Canadian agricultural markets spurred by NAFTA resulted from both lowering tariffs and harmonising food safety regulations.1 The NAFTA experience suggests that deregulatory initiatives such as those in CETA, even if technically ‘voluntary’, lead to a harmonisation of standards towards the lowest common denominator in a process that lacks transparency and gives industry stakeholders preferred access.

Over two decades since NAFTA came into effect, the Canadian government has “gradually deregulated, under-regulated and moved toward industry self-reporting in order to ‘reduce the burden’ on business”.2 It justified these actions by invoking a need for regulatory cooperation. The result has been a deterioration in food safety standards, reduced concern about the risks associated with toxic chemicals, and a greater willingness to allow pesticide residue contamination in foods.3

Canadian agribusiness strongly advocated for regulatory cooperation in CETA, and the industry is not waiting for CETA’s ratification to advance its deregulatory agenda. Canadian agribusiness is already objecting to the continued existence of stricter EU food safety standards, saying they are inconsistent with CETA and a problem that must be resolved. The Canadian meat producing, packing and processing industries have complained of ‘technical barriers’ that remain in place even after CETA’s signing that prevent export of their products to the EU.4

In parliamentary hearings, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association conditioned its support of CETA with a demand for “a commitment from the government of Canada to develop and fully fund a comprehensive strategy utilising technical, advocacy and political skills to achieve the elimination of the remaining non-tariff barriers to Canadian beef”.5 There is no question that the industry, with its allies in Canada’s trade and agriculture ministries, is poised to take full advantage of CETA to push its agenda to weaken EU standards.

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