TTIP, Regulatory Convergence and Food: Relying on gut instinct to protect our guts

“…treatment with trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide, or peroxyacid solutions . . . should be of no safety concern.” Expert scientific opinion, European Food and Safety Agency.

The EFSA may or may not be right to propose that chlorinated chickens are safe to consume but in this piece it is argued that home sapiens are, first and foremost, omnivores and as such form a not unnatural revulsion to chemical sounding words with echo’s of over-crowded public swimming pools  rather than fresh produce with the potential to deliver a mouth-watering savoury dish. Homo sapiens have relied on their gut-instinct, senses and the advice of their elders for millennia to decide what food is safe to eat and what is not. It may not be a particularly scientific approach but it is an approach which has worked in the past and an approach more feel comfortable with than new foods which have their originins in science and not in the soil.

Related link:  Pioneer 1507: Is it a sci-fi toy? Is it a Star Wars sub-plot? Or is it food?

Kathleen Garnett

The language of science can be tricky to master. It requires a bachelor degree at the very least, a doctorate for the more advanced, a professorship to those eager for a career in academia. For those not trained to such lofty levels the language of science can seem more fiendish than seventeenth century Mandarin, as baffling as Double Dutch and about as useful to everyday transactions as Esperanto.

This has not stopped US trade negotiators, desperate to find common ground on the fraught TTIP negotiations, from urging the EU and its citizens to recognise a 25th official language: Science. According to this theory the language of science should form the trade-speak that determines the safety standards of food and agriculture. US Agriculture Minister, Tom Vilsack suggested “science is a common language” that both Americans and Europeans can understand. A sentiment echoed by Anthony Gardner, US Ambassador to the EU, who is urging Europeans to embrace the language of science and get a deal done.

Not that non-scientists are complete dunces when it comes to mastering some of the essential rules governing science. Many, this writer included, may not be fluent speakers of science but we do have a smattering of the basics. We know, for example, that a quark is a black spot representing the centre of an atom not a form of traditional German cream cheese; that the earth regardless of appearance is round not flat; that vitamin C although imperceptible to the naked eye can be found in copious amounts inside an orange; and that gravity, although invisible is a powerful force that pulls us to the earth.

Still, compared to all those professors, doctors and bachelors we acknowledge that our understanding of science is sketchy at best. As such we stand in awe of those who have mastered the language thoroughly. In high drama criminal trials the culprit is nailed on the scientific evidence which can prove, beyond reasonable doubt, that it was he/she “who dun it”. We may not understand the mathematical calculations that allowed the scientists to come to their conclusion but we accept their scientific reasoning without question. When we grapple with a thorny conundrum we ask “what does the science say?” In times of crisis we cry “is there a scientist in the room?” Confident that the scientist will give an evidence based answer to the conundrum we are happy to put the matter to rest and concur with their analysis. Based on this logic, it would indeed, be tempting to agree with the TTIP negotiators and allow science to act as a 25th language on which common ground can be sought.

The one problem with this approach is that in recent years the refrain of “call a scientist” is beginning to sound less and less convincing particularly in relation to food and the environment. Could it be that the grammar of science is not as sound and conclusive as once thought? Over the years food science has developed so many regional accents and dialects it is beginning to sound a lot less common than once thought. The Americans talk a form of science that is at odds with that of European scientists. Industry had developed an accent that is quite distinct to that of civic interest groups. Privately funded research centres talk the talk of enterprise whilst Universities prefer the parlance of the accepted speech. All – Americans, Europeans, Industry, Universities, NGO’s – claim to speak the legitimate “sound” science with the rest talking a form of bastardised, colloquial “junk” science.

Take GMO’s by way of example. There are those in the scientific community who like to speak in the present plural whilst others insist it should only be spoken of in the future conditional. Those who sit in the Academy of Sciences are still not sure whether one should use a definite article in relation to climate change or an indefinite article given that no one can prove a definitive causal link between carbon emission and climate change. The jury is still out on the whole hormones in beef questions with some speaking the language of reflection whilst other take a more assured tone. One can feel a distinct chill between the experts when it comes to the safety of saturated fats with some traditionalists insisting on the use of past practices whilst younger members insist on showing a more innovative bent and embracing new forms of usage.

The result of all this uncertainty amongst scientific experts leads those who have not mastered the language to conclude that science is not a common language at all. Could it be that science is not as accurate, conclusive, definitive as once thought? No where is this better illustrated than with the science of food, agriculture and the environment. Food and agriculture is a good starting point for this discussion since the TTIP covers both and when it comes to food and agriculture the EU and US are increasingly at logger-heads. They might have equivalence in car safety standards, air traffic control and medical research – but food and agriculture is a whole different ball-game. If the US regulatory approach to food and agriculture is the dry sterile chalk then the EU is the traditional, microbial cheese.

The TTIP trade agreement is not just about lowering tariffs or investor agreements it is crucially about a new, utterly dull concept “regulatory convergence”. Regulatory convergence is a fancy term used to describe the free movement of goods between the US and the EU. If it’s deemed safe for consumption in Europe then it is safe enough for Americans to consume and visa versa. If it’s deemed safe enough for Americans to consume then it is safe enough for Europeans to consume.

Those in favour of creating a free market in food and agriculture assure consumers that neither the European nor the US citizen has anything to fear given that both the EU and US set vigorous safety standards albeit that the paths used to achieve this end vary. The NGO’s and civic communities on the other hand warn that regulatory convergence is a “race to the bottom” with US regulations on food and agriculture slithering on the slimy bottom of a corporate-built, steamy cess pit.

Both may be exaggerations but when it comes to food and agriculture it is fair to say that the approach to regulating this sector has taken two quite distinct paths that have meandered in completely opposite directions – so much so that convergence is practically impossible and it looks increasingly unlikely that the common language of science is the bridge that will join the two.

By way of example, in the EU there has been a real attempt to move away from quantity to quality; to limit the use of nitrates; to ban the use of hormones and antibiotics in husbandry; to pass animal welfare regulations that ease the suffering of farm animals; to take a wait and see approach to GMO’s (there are no commercially grown GMO crops on European soil); to support quality regional produce; to promote traditional time honoured foods; and to encourage farmers to diversify into areas other than producing more unneeded food surpluses.

The American approach to food and agriculture over the past twenty years, on the other hand, has been to promote quantity over quality (there has been little or no regulatory attempt to ease farmers off subsidised industrialised farming practices), no attempt to dissuade farmers dependant on mono-agriculture from relying on synthetic fertilizers (nitrates) and pesticides; full governmental support for GMO crops (169 million acres of land in the US now grow GMO products), no regulatory attempts to ease animal suffering through animal welfare programmes particularly with regard to Concentrated Animal Farm Organisations; and the promotion of patented foods to solve problems created by patented food.

With such gapping differences in agriculture and the subsequent food on offer to consumers it is hard to reconcile the two completely different approaches. Not that this has stopped American food and agricultural corporations from trying. After years of trying to prise open the European market head-on and failing the TTIP offers them a once in a life-time opportunity to finally enter the vast European market, on their terms, via the backdoor. And their terms include “sound science” – an approach the American Food and Drug Administration has adopted, pretty much without questioning, for the past twenty years. If their food products can have equivalence in Europe then the market is theirs for the taking without the hassle and expense of persuading sceptical MEPs, Commission officials and member states that their science is sound.

Detractors argue that American “sound science” as proposed by the FDA is full of the same kind of junk as the food they approve. But, to suggest that all Americans are fans of the FDA and their science is too harsh. There are plenty of hard working small family run farms in the US that produce first rate agricultural produce – but they are not the ones who will be exporting their produce to Europe – and they tend to be the ones fighting the FDA as much as European consumers are. Rather, it will be the big corporations with their vast integrated empires that will be looking to export their cheap, GMO, patented food products to Europe.

This letter, written by Senator Marc Baucus, former Chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to the United States Trade Representative confirms this approach:

Broad bipartisan Congressional support for expanding trade with the EU depends, in large part, on lowering trade barriers for American agricultural products. This means increased agricultural market access and firm commitments to base sanitary and phytosanitary measures on sound science (emphasis added). The EU has historically imposed sanitary and phytosanitary measures that act as significant barriers to U.S.-EU trade, including the EU’s restrictions on genetically engineered crops, a ban on the use of hormones in cattle, restrictions on pathogen reduction treatments in poultry, (chlorinated chickens, ed.) pork and beef, unscientific restrictions on the use of safe feed additives such as ractopamine in beef and pork, and other barriers to trade affecting a significant portion of U.S. agricultural exports…. We urge you to resolve these and other unwarranted agricultural barriers as part of the FTA negotiations …

It would be tempting to classify Americans as the wicked weasels seeking to export their fake food products to innocent Europeans. This is not the case. American consumers are often at one with European consumers on certain food practices – particularly with regard to GMO food labelling. Some of the finest food writers and advocates for sustainable farming practices and traditional real food stem from the United States – Sally Fallon, Mary Enig, Harold McGee, Sandor Katz, Robert Capon Farrar and Michael Pollan to name but a few. There are literally hundreds of civic interest groups in the United States trying to promote less “sound science” in the food and agricultural sector and a bit more common sense.

Equally, to suggest that the EU does not partake in dubious food and agricultural techniques would be quite wrong. The EU has embraced plenty of  practices over the years that would make even an FDA official blush. The recent approval of the claim that crystalline fructose is healthier than sucrose by the European Food Safety Agency is a good indication that the EU consumer is just as much at the mercy of scientific expert advice as is their US counter-part. Further, although the EU is attempting to correct malpractice in terms of nitrates use and intensive animal husbandry it is by no means there yet.

The picture that emerges is not so much a divide between the US and EU trade negotiators – but a divide between the food industry, sympathetic US and EU food regulators on the one hand and ordinary consumers on the other. Consumers of food and beverages, regardless of continent, nation, region or ethnicity, trust their gut instincts to protect their guts more than the advice of scientific experts and their instincts tell them that chicken preserved with “trisodium phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide, or peroxyacid solutions” sounds distinctly fishy…as opposed to chickeny.

We are, after all, first and foremost omnivores and as such form a not unnatural revulsion to chemical sounding words with echo’s of over-crowded public swimming pools that little kids pee in rather than fresh produce with the potential to deliver a mouth-watering savoury dish. We’ve relied on our gut-instinct, our senses and the advice of our elders for millennia to decide whether our food is safe or not. It may not be a particularly scientific approach but it is an approach which has worked in the past and an approach more feel comfortable with than new foods which have their originins in a lab and not in the soil.

What this should be telling trade negotiators, the FDA, the EFSA and the food industry is that scientific food product and real food will never make natural bed-fellows. Our omnivorous instincts aside, common logic tells us that the science of food is still evolving and as such is just as much prone to mistakes as it is to definitive, reliable conclusions. Consider, Michael Pollan’s remark in his book Food Rules, “Nutrition science, which after all only got started less than two hundred years ago, is today approximately where surgery was in the year 1650 – very promising, and very interesting to watch, but are you ready to let them operate on you?” Not really. To non-scientists the concept of “sound science” sounds suspiciously like a sixteenth century surgeon proposing the removal of your kidney as a cure for constipation.

Science, without a shadow of a doubt, has contributed enormously to our overall well being and it will, without a shadow of doubt, continue to do so. When it comes to food and agriculture, however, the role of science is less clear. Where once we were happy to defer to the greater knowledge of food scientists that comfortable assumption can no longer be taken for granted. Not that the likes of Tom Vilsack, Senator Marc Baucus or Karel de Gucht have grasped this fundamental concept.

There have been too many instances where science got it wrong. The ebb and flow of food fads – all backed by scientific evidence – lead many to conclude that food science is just as vulnerable to the subjective whims of fashion as is the Parisian high street. Today butter is in but margarine is out. Raw food is in but cooked food out. Paleo is in and gluten is out. Tomorrow meat could be the new soya-bean and cooked food the new raw food. Editors of Scientific Food Journals are just as much prone to changing what works and what does not as are the fashion editors of Vogue and Cosmopolitan when considering next season’s new colours.

Rather than accepting that their branch of science is evolving and should form but another cog in the policy making process when deciding food safety regulations, food scientists that staff the FDA and EFSA are retreating ever further into an elitist frame of mind urging policy makers and consumers to accept their mysterious language without question. The fact that Ann Glover, the EU’s chief scientific adviser, has determined that her advice to EU policy makers will remain secret gives weight to the impression that scientific experts are acting more like an elitist cabal with a penchant for practicing the dark arts than impartial honest-brokers. If, as they claim, their science is so sound then it should stand on its own merit, where it can be borne in mind by policy makers rather than acting as the linchpin on which all else rests.

So many red-lines are already threatening to scupper the TTIP – investor agreements, financial services, cinema and film, export of energy – add to that list food and agriculture. We all eat – at least three times a day.  Food is a highly emotive issue and trade negotiators, food regulators, food scientists and chief scientific advisers offering secret consultations would be wise to bear this in mind when determining whether there really is any wiggle room for regulatory convergence on what promises to be a highly contentious issue.

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