Are Europeans ready for a less precautionary approach to trade?

Posted by Rob Hotakainen on October 1, 2013 

Will Europeans drop their ban on U.S. chickens that have been disinfected with chlorine?

STEVE RICE/MINNEAPOLIS STAR TRIBUNE/MCT

Why won't Europeans eat American chicken?

Blame it on the precautionary principle. It's a time-honored approach to trade in Europe, the idea that policy decisions don't always have to be based solely on science. A suspected risk of harm is reason enough to act.

U.S. chickens are routinely dipped in chlorine as a way to clean them. The U.S. government says it's perfectly safe, based on science. But Europeans invoke the precautionary principle, saying they'd just as soon pass.

U. S. Trade Representative Mike Froman is downplaying the principle this week as part of his foreign travels.

"It is a caricature to suggest that when Europe only takes regulatory action based on the precautionary principle --- in other words, without 100 percent scientific certainty, that it prohibits an activity," Froman said in a speech in Brussels on Monday. "Since science is rarely definitive, under this scenario, all productive activity would cease. Similarly, it is a caricature to suggest that the U.S. bases its regulations solely on cost-benefit analysis, and that it does not take qualitative factors into consideration, such as dignity, fairness and equity."

As an example, Froman pointed to the American with Disabilities Act, saying the decision to require accessible bathrooms "wasn't simply a matter of cost-benefit analysis, it reflected a sense of equity and dignity as well."

As a result, Froman said, it might be "premature to declare an end to the debate over the precautionary principle and cost-benefit analysis."

But he added: "That distinction is decreasingly important."

Froman can only hope that Europeans share his view. It's sure to be a big topic when European and U.S. negotiators meet for their second formal round of trade talks next week.

And If Europeans agree with America's top trade official, more of the nation's chickens could be headed for Europe in coming years.

 

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