The EU ban, in place since 1997, has effectively stopped all imports of US poultry meat, which is generally treated by a chemical process aimed at pathogen reduction.
Last month, European agriculture ministers decided to maintain the ban, rejecting efforts by EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen to lift the ban under certain conditions such as labelling to identify the process and pledges that the chicken would be rinsed.
US trade officials filed a complaint with the WTO on Friday, claiming that ‘the poultry treatments at issue have been widely and safely used in the US for many years.”
Dialogue ‘not effective’
According to US Trade Representative Susan Schwab, her office has been trying to address the issue through dialogue with the EU for more than 11 years, but that the talks have failed to resolve the issue.
Schwab claims that neither the European Commission nor EU member states have offered any legitimate, science-based reason for continuing to block US pathogen treated poultry.
She argues that so-called “sanitary and phytosanitary standards” on agricultural products were increasingly being used as protectionist tools.
US poultry exports to the EU prior to the 1997 restrictions had been worth about $50 million annually.
For many decades food regulators have been hesitant to endorse the use of antimicrobial substances by poultry processors, arguing that processors would use antimicrobials to mask unhygienic slaughter or processing practices. If permitted for use, it was also feared that their widespread use coupled with high bacterial counts due to unhygienic practices, would induce resistance of the micro flora present on the surface of the treated products.
However, scientific opinion, issued by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) early last year, stated that the banned chemicals (phosphate, acidified sodium chlorite, chlorine dioxide or peroxyacid) posed no risk to human health and could be used to clean chicken carcasses.
But MEPs, speaking in the Parliament's Environment Committee last May, said the chlorination of chicken intended for human consumption is not acceptable for the EU and would threaten the community's entire set of food production standards. French Socialist MEP Anne Ferreira said that lifting the ban would be “totally absurd". She was supported by John Bowis (EPP-ED, UK), who said it would be "outrageous" and would degrade EU citizens to the status of "guinea pigs".Schwab maintains that if WTO consultations fail to settle the dispute within 60 days, the US will be entitled to request that a WTO panel be established to determine whether the EU is acting consistently with its WTO obligations.