On a velvety green patch of the French countryside, organic farmer Jean Cabaret gives a little shudder. A looming trade deal with the United States, he fears, may make his worst culinary nightmare come true: an invasion of Europe by American “Frankenfoods”.
“Hormone-boosted beef. Chlorine-washed chicken. Genetically altered vegetables. This is what they want for us,” warned Cabaret, standing before his majestic herd of free-range cows. “In France, food is about pleasure, about taste. But in the United States, they put anything in their mouths. No, this must be stopped.”
In Europe, this is a season of angst — even paranoia — over a historic bid to link the United States and the 28-nation European Union in the world’s largest free-trade deal.
Passage of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) could be a globalisation milestone, creating a megamarket of 800 million consumers from Alaska to Finland, Hawaii to Greece. Import duties — many of which already are low — could be further reduced. More important, the deal could finally tackle nontariff barriers, including differing data protection and food safety standards that have long stood in the way of transatlantic commerce.
But even as time runs out for President Obama to sign a deal before leaving office, European and US advocates have been surprised by the increasingly hostile reception on this side of the Atlantic. It is jeopardizing the chances of a deal that proponents say could create millions of new jobs by dramatically boosting US-EU trade.
There is dissent in the United States, too, where some critics fear Washington may bargain away the “Buy American” clauses that give US companies an edge in government contracts. But here in Europe, no single issue is inflaming the debate more than food — specifically US calls for Europe to open its door to long-banned American foodstuffs that are hormone-treated, chemically sanitized or genetically modified.
Many European critics also are taking aim at other aspects of the deal — with the most strident opponents insisting it could usher in an era of American-style capitalism to Europe that puts corporations and consumerism above all else.
“With these talks, you are seeing the European fear of globalisation turning into something more specific — a fear of America,” said Thomas Snégaroff, a French radio commentator and US expert at the Paris-based Institute for Strategic and International Relations.
Leading European food safety authorities have determined that several US practices in contention — such as sanitizing poultry in lightly chlorinated water — are safe. Yet increasingly, the debate here is not just about health but what European critics decry as “less natural” methods deployed by mass producers of food in the United States.
It is pitting science against food culture in places such as France, where gourmands are lamenting widespread industrialization on farms in the country and the growing practice of Paris bistros serving flash-frozen meals to unsuspecting diners. Letting in artificially treated US foods, they warn, could water down French cuisine even more, leading to pool-scented chicken chunks served with flavorless sides of bionic broccoli.
“If this happens, if these US foods come into Europe, we are talking about more than safety risks,” said gourmand and food writer Camille Labro. “You are afraid of food in the United States. You have to blast it with chemicals to kill all the bacteria. Don’t you know what that does to flavor? If we allow that kind of food here, we are talking about the death of taste.”
French opponents are staging events nationwide in which activists dressed as chickens are handing out fliers at grocery stores, calling all concerned citizens to town hall meetings aimed at “educating” society on the dangers of TTIP. That move comes after actors in chicken outfits in one French protest troupe — dubbed the “chicken brigade” — tried to “chlorinate themselves” in a public pool.
French President François Hollande has openly backed the trade deal. But in an interview with The Washington Post, Matthias Fekl, France’s new secretary of state for foreign trade, said he could not envision any deal that opens the door to controversial US foods.
“This is about lifestyle, about way of life,” Fekl said. “Nothing will force us to expand entry into Europe of chlorinated chicken or hormone beef.”
In October, tens of thousands of people from 22 EU countries took to the streets to protest the deal. The protests included flash mobs in Belgium and a demonstration in Copenhagen that used a 24-foot Trojan Horse to symbolize the hidden risks of the trade deal. Even in Britain — a nation hardly known for the glories of its national cuisine — fear and loathing of modified American foods, and the trade deal in general, appear to be running surprisingly strong.
An August poll by YouGov found that only 13 percent of Britons were in favor of TTIP, while 39 percent were opposed.
US officials and food producers call European fears misguided, describing American standards of food safety as among the highest in the world. US officials point to studies showing American standard practices — including chlorine washing of chickens — as unquestionably safe.
“We’re not trying to force anybody to eat anything,” Michael Froman, the US trade representative, said in an interview with The Washington Post this week. But, he added, “we do feel like the decision as to what is safe should be made by science.”
Ironically, it was the European Union — a region mired in stagnant growth and a crisis of unemployment — that approached the Obama administration about a prospective trade deal. The administration seized the opportunity, opening talks in 2013 and making a deal with Europe, as well as raising hopes for an ambitious agreement with Asia, the cornerstone of its trade policy. Leading European leaders, including British Prime Minister David Cameron and German Chancellor Angela Merkel, remain firmly behind TTIP.
In recent months, chances of any major breakthrough have been hindered by elections on both sides of the Atlantic. An eighth round of talks is set for February. Given the lengthy process for legislative approvals required in Europe and the United States, however, analysts say a deal must come together by late 2015 or early 2016 if Obama is to sign it. Otherwise, an agreement will rest in the hands of the incoming administration.
In some EU countries — including Poland and Sweden — there appears to be solid support. But in other nations, the opposition increasingly seems to be less about food than outright Americaphobia.
In Europe, a certain brand of anti-Americanism is almost always just under the surface on the political left and the far right. But with the TTIP talks, at least some of those sentiments appear to be going mainstream. In parts of Europe, including Germany — a nation still smarting from revelations of US spying — staunch opposition has built up around the possible inclusion of an investor-rights clause in TTIP.
Often viewed as almost perfunctory in trade deals, such clauses allow companies to take governments to arbitration if the companies think investor rights are being violated. But loud European critics insist that the provisions could give U.S. corporations the legal leverage they need to challenge everything from Europe’s high environmental standards to its universal health-care systems.
Such fears may not be as broadly held in Europe as opponents suggest. But their frequent public airing has made the debate over TTIP in Germany increasingly personal. During a recent skit on the popular “Heute-Show” — a sort of German version of “The Daily Show” — host Oliver Welke pretended to address the US Congress.
Calling for an end to the trade talks, he quipped: “The dirt of your broken colony is spilling into Europe. We endured cheeseburgers, Halloween and ‘Baywatch', and our asses will soon be as big as those of your fat wives.”
He concluded with a statement in German that roughly translates a:, “Why don’t you shove your free-trade agreement where the sun doesn’t shine?”
Virgile Demoustier in Paris, Stephanie Kirchner in Berlin and Karla Adam in London contributed to this report
© The Washington Post