Why TTIP is important for all of us
Still widely unknown to the public, TTIP is said to bring economic prosperity and jobs. But is it suited to protect European food safety standards and overcome different regulatory philosophies on antimicrobials?
I was first informed about the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, a.k.a. TTIP, during my time at Macalester College in Minnesota. I remember that a representative of the Institute of Agriculture and Trade Policy (IATP) told me about the trade plans, but I mostly remember how shocked I was that I knew little to nothing about them. And I was not the only one. Almost a year later, the rest of the Dutch public and I still barely know anything about TTIP.
So what do we know and what do we need to know?
The TTIP negotiations commenced in 2013, when the US and the EU started to discuss how they could reduce Non-Tarrif Barriers (NTBs) to trade. NTBs are for example regulatory barriers such as European requirements for food safety testing, as these form extra costs for the exporting country. Reducing NTBs would reduce these costs and make it more attractive for businesses to engage in international trade. According to the pro-TTIP parties, this would in return benefit the financial position of both countries.
The other side of reducing these NTBs, however, brings up more complex issues. After all, reducing regulatory barriers requires changing regulations, which becomes very risky when discussing food safety. Although Merkel stated that ‘‘it would be a win-win situation’’ that could ‘’set global standards’’, concerns have been raised that it would rather lead to concessions and a lowering of EU standards on food safety.
One example where this could have a huge influence is in the field of regulations on antimicrobials. Antimicrobials have been used for a wide variety of purposes, including in the livestock industry. It is used in a therapeutic form to treat disease, which is often in low-dosages and supervised by a veterinary physician, but it can also be used in a non-therapeutic way to prevent disease (prophylactic use); and for growth promotion, which often occurs in high-dosages and through livestock feed.
The second form, non-therapeutic usage, is where regulation becomes key, as this often involves high dosages and can thus lead to unnecessary use and over-medication of antimicrobials. This can lead to antimicrobial resistance, or the spread of bacteria that are resistant to antimicrobials (such as MRSA, E.Coli outbreaks, etc.), which both take a large toll in terms of economics, as well as lives. Strictly regulating prudent use of antimicrobials in livestock industries and actively seeking alternatives to their usage should be the number one priority in tackling these issues.
After the publication of the Swann Report in 1969, which stated that it should be prevented to use antimicrobials in livestock industries that would also be used in human medicine, the EU responded quickly by phasing out antimicrobials that were used for growth promotion and by planning to completely ban growth-promoting antimicrobials in 2006. Although this was most certainly a landmark move, the ban was not supported by the promotion of alternative methods to antimicrobials in legislation, nor did it deal with the other form of non-therapeutic use, namely prophylactic usage. Because of this, for some countries, including the Netherlands, the ban was first met with a rise of prophylactic use of antimicrobials, keeping the overall usage static. This response only further signified the alarming dependence of the livestock sector on antimicrobials, and the impact of a ban when it does not target the roots and entirety of the issue.
But why is TTIP an issue?
Although antimicrobials and their impact on society may not seem relevant to a trade deal, it becomes more apparent when looking at the proposals for this trade deal. Antimicrobials have been included under the chapters of Regulatory Cooperation and Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures, as well as in an additional proposal to TTIP made by the EU. These chapters stress a harmonisation of measures between the US and the EU, aiming to ‘‘promote the compatibility of envisaged and existing EU and US regulatory acts.’’ (Art 2. of EU proposal for RC) for current and envisaged measures. (Art. 1 of EU proposal for RC).
But how is compatibility promoted when regulatory philosophies are different between nations?
The United States has not yet banned growth-promoting antimicrobials, despite the fact that the FDA has urged for this to happen since the publication of the Swann Report. This is due partly to the fact that the US treats scientific evidence differently than the EU. Whereas the EU has the Precautionary Principle, a principle ruling that risk is more important than absolute evidence, the US treats policy proposals in a cost-benefit way, which means that the proof lies with those who feel that antimicrobials used in livestock directly cause antimicrobial resistance and outbreaks of MRSA and other diseases. This makes it much harder to move forward in creating regulation for antimicrobial usage in livestock. This is exactly where the problem with TTIP lies: the current EU proposals provide no binding language to ensure that harmonisation will not lead to a lowering of standards, which means that antimicrobial regulation might end up as an area of concession when trying to create this trade deal.
The best-case scenario, however, is that the US would improve its measures and ban growth-promoting antimicrobials. Since the FDA has been pushing for this already, TTIP might be an extra incentive to pursue this. However, as mentioned earlier, the EU’s ban has shown that its legislation needs improvement, which means that just applying a ban on growth-promoting antimicrobials on the US’s behalf is not going to achieve much, apart from making it even more difficult to trace back where resistance comes from. And given the fact that TTIP also aims to harmonise envisaged legislation, it becomes even more difficult to develop the current EU ban into a full ban regulating all non-therapeutic forms of antimicrobials. After all, Article 6 of the chapter on RC requires that states first inform stakeholders, and that their concerns ‘‘shall take into account the contributions received in the finalization of their regulatory acts’’. How are the US and the EU going to overcome their differences in scientific risk treatment in establishing how these contributions should be translated into regulatory acts? And will more US stakeholder involvement really benefit these negotiations, given the fact that they have managed to hinder the US’s ban until now?
I have no absolute answer to these questions, especially because we do not know how things will play out or develop in the future. However, just looking at the non-binding nature of the EU’s current proposals and the regulatory tendencies of both parties, I am certain that more precaution needs to be adopted on behalf of the EU to safeguard its measures on antimicrobials. For now and for the future, because further efforts need to be made to ensure that antimicrobial resistance is minimized to the greatest extent possible.