Many EU citizens might have to pay for a trade deal with South American countries with medical bills, writes Stephen Cadogan.
The deal would involve the EU taking increased meat imports, mostly from Brazil, the world’s No 1 exporter of beef.
However, there are recurring food safety problems in meat from South America.
Between 11% and 16% of recent notifications of serious health risk in food on the EU market was in meat from the Mercosur countries, already major suppliers of beef and poultry to the EU.
These food safety problems led the US Department of Agriculture to suspend imports of fresh beef from Brazil last June.
In contrast, EU diplomats are ready to offer Argentina, Brazil, Paraguay, and Uruguay access to the EU for 90,000 to 100,000 additional tonnes of beef at reduced import tariff rates, if that is what it takes for the EU to strike its biggest ever trade deal, which has eluded it since negotiations began in 1999.
However, Mercosur is looking for more than 200,000t of beef access.
It is nicknamed the beef-for-cars trade deal in Brussels, because negotiations include Europe agreeing to buy enough South American beef at low import tax rates in turn for the other side cutting tax on EU exports such as cars and machinery.
But how would the EU protect its citizens from food safety problems in Mercosur meat, if a deal is agreed?
It says all imports have to comply with the EU’s rigorous food safety standards, but obviously that is not happening today.
The EU negotiators say agreement on food safety and animal and plant health will reinforce co-operation with Mercosur authorities, and speed up the flow of information about any potential risks, in a more direct and efficient information and notification system.
Maybe this means the South Americans will tip the EU off if any dodgy meat is on the way.
After months of investigation, it was uncovered in 2017 that Brazilian food inspectors were accepting bribes to allow expired meat to be sold, and falsifying meat hygiene permits. The US started turning away Brazilian beef when 11% of the inspected meat did not pass regulations, and later banned it entirely, with Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue stating, “Ensuring the safety of our nation’s food supply is one of our critical missions,” and “My first priority is to protect American consumers.”
The EU is still taking Brazilian beef and, in recent weeks, detected only one case where it was seriously contaminated (with shigatoxin-producing E coli in frozen beef, in Italy).
However, chilled boneless beef from Uruguay was found to have the very same problem, three times in the past two weeks, classified as serious in terms of health risk.
And the biggest recent offender in the EU is poultry from Brazil. It was found seriously contaminated with salmonella bacteria at least 17 times in the past four weeks.
Throughout the past year, the EU’s Rapid Alert System for Food and Feed had numerous notifications nearly every day of serious health risk due to bacterial contamination of meats from Brazil.
The dangers of food poisoning from Mercosur meats don’t seem to register with the EU trade negotiators, nor with EU beef farmers, whose main fear instead is being overwhelmed by Brazil, the world’s No 1 exporter of beef. Farmers also warn beef from Brazil has four times the carbon footprint of beef from Ireland, so a Mercosur deal would set back the EU’s carbon-efficiency.
This is a nervous week for farmers, with EU Commisioners for Trade and Agriculture Cecilia Malmström and Phil Hogan meeting the Mercosur side in Brussels to try to close out a deal.
But any glitch could lead to yet another Mercosur trade deal flop, because Brazil will “close down” at the beginning of March for elections which take place in October, and the EU will go into election mode in 2019, choosing new commissioners and parliamentarians.
Another Mercosur trade deal flop is what farmers are hoping for, and it could be good news also for EU consumers worried about food poisoning.