WASHINGTON — As President Barack Obama prepares to go to Northern Ireland on Sunday to promote a new trade pact with the European Union, hopes are running high for many U.S. businesses eager to squeeze more cash from one of the world’s most lucrative markets.
For poultry growers, it’s a chance to end a ban on chickens disinfected using chlorine, a widely accepted cleaning practice in the U.S.
For the confectionary industry, it’s a way to get rid of labeling requirements to disclose whether candy, gum or chocolates contain any genetically modified ingredients.
And for Errico Auricchio, a Wisconsin cheese maker, it could help sell his Romano cheese throughout Europe, even though it’s not manufactured in the Italian city for which it’s named.
With Europeans’ longstanding suspicions of American food, Obama faces an uphill climb in his bid to revise trading rules between the two giants.
The stakes are high for the president, who wants to double U.S. exports under his watch and whose team has made a European deal a top economic plank of his second term.
But in both Europe and the United States there’s skepticism, with many saying the historical hurdles and huge cultural differences will be hard to overcome.
“This negotiation will be far more difficult than a lot of people have anticipated,” said Clayton Yeutter, the U.S. trade representative from 1985-88, before becoming the secretary of agriculture.
Business officials are counting on the president to carry their message at the G-8 Summit in Northern Ireland, which opens Monday, and in Berlin on Wednesday, when he is scheduled to give a speech at the Brandenburg Gate and to meet with German Chancellor Angela Merkel.
“I hope he understands the gravity of the situation,” said Auricchio, who moved to the United States from Italy in 1979 and now runs his 550-employee business in Green Bay.
Many U.S. business officials say the timing for a deal could be perfect. They argue that a struggling economy has made Europeans hungry for more trade and more likely to ease onerous food-safety rules.
Some are braced for the worst, fearing a new pact could lead to lower standards in both Europe and the U.S.
“We think there’s a lose-lose situation with consumers on both sides of the Atlantic,” said Tony Corbo, senior lobbyist for the U.S. consumer group Food and Water Watch. He noted that unlike the United States, the European Union has not yet passed zero-tolerance standards for some dangerous types of e-coli, Listeria and other food toxins.
But Yeutter, who called the trade pact “an awesome opportunity” for both sides, said that the Europeans have done much “backpedaling” since the talks were announced in February, raising questions of how serious they are in tackling a deal. While U.S. officials say they want to negotiate all issues, a new fact sheet produced by the European Commission says that “tough EU laws” aimed at protecting human life and health “will not be part of the negotiations.”
If an agreement emerges, Yeutter said, the Obama administration will need to make sure that it has solid backing from U.S. farm groups.
“It’s difficult to get trade agreements of any kind through the U.S. Congress these days, and you certainly cannot do it without the support of American agriculture,” Yeutter said. “Some of these differences are going to have to be bridged.”
One of the toughest assignments for the Obama team will be to get Europeans to eat American chicken.
The United States has been barred from exporting poultry to European countries since 1996, when the European Union said it would no longer accept chickens that had been cleaned using hyper-chlorinated water to kill bacteria such as salmonella.
Big money is at stake, with the U.S. poultry industry estimating that it could export at least $600 million worth of products every year if it won access to the sprawling European market.
The National Chicken Council argues that any concerns about the use of chlorine are unfounded and that the ban is a way for Europeans to protect their poultry industry from cheaper U.S. imports.
“The science shows nothing happens to humans who eat this poultry, other than they’ve benefited from fewer cases of food-borne illness because pathogen levels are down,” said Bill Roenigk, senior vice president and economist for the National Chicken Council.
Europeans contend that U.S. poultry growers wouldn’t have to use chlorine if they had higher hygiene standards. But many fear that the wheeling and dealing of a new trade deal could ultimately force them to accept U.S. chickens.
“There is a risk that if the EU wants something, well maybe we have to take chlorinated chicken – that is a risk we see,” said Johannes Kleis, spokesman for the European Consumer Organisation, the umbrella group in Brussels for 41 consumer organizations.
Kleis is not convinced by the scientific arguments and said that most Europeans share his view.
“I’m not a scientist, but if it goes into my body I’m rather cautious,” he said. “I prefer the cautionary approach to things because, in the end, it’s about the things I eat. “
While Americans push scientific arguments, Europeans rely on what they call the Precautionary Principle. It permits government officials to make decisions on the possibility of risk, on the premise that prevention is better than a cure.
Eric Shimp, a former U.S. trade negotiator who’s now a policy adviser on global trade with Alston & Bird, a Washington law firm, said Europeans have used the principle to block U.S. imports of chicken, pork, beef, shellfish and genetically modified foods, among other things.
And Shimp said the task will be complicated by Europe’s divided politics: While U.S. negotiators will try to strike a deal with the entire 27-member European Union, many countries make decisions on their own and may have to be dealt with individually. As an example, Shimp cited the vote by the French Parliament in December to ban the use of bisphenol A, commonly known as BPA, a chemical used in U.S. food packaging.
“We’re not going to get the European Union to abandon the Precautionary Principle,” Shimp said. “It’s too much a part of the fabric of EU politics and economics.”
The trade talks have set off a flurry of concern.
Europeans want the negotiations to end rules that require U.S. government agencies to buy American-made goods.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group, known as U.S. PIRG, a consumer advocacy group, wants to make sure that U.S. negotiators do not lower standards for drugs and medical devices, such as pacemakers and insulin pumps.
U.S. consumer groups also fear that the United States will relax its 16-year ban on the import of beef from Europe. Originally put into place because of concerns over mad cow disease, consumer advocates say it helped protect Americans from any European beef imports containing horsemeat.
The National Confectioners Association wants to junk a European requirement that calls for labels on any candy containing genetically modified ingredients. They’re irked with a requirement that any product with artificial coloring must include a label saying it “may have an adverse effect on activity and attention in children.”
In Green Bay, Auricchio wants to make sure that U.S. cheese makers can crack the European market. Auricchio, chairman of a group called the Consortium for Common Food Names, said the Europeans are trying to monopolize common names such as parmesan, feta and cheddar, tying them to geographical locations as a way to block U.S. imports.
It’s a source of growing worry for U.S. food producers. In March, a British court ruled that the U.S. firm Chobani was misleading consumers in the United Kingdom by calling its product Greek yogurt when it was not made in Greece.
“There is no consumer in the United States who believes that Greek yogurt comes from Greece,” Auricchio said. “Do we believe that French fries come from France? “
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