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EU says poultry spat with U. S. too hard to fix

A promise by the European Commission to lift an 11-year-old ban on U. S. poultry imports has proven too hard to fulfil and it was probably unwise to try, a top EU official said Oct. 18.

“It is a very, very contaminated political area,” EU Industry Commissioner Guenter Verheugen said, referring to resistance in European Union member states to importing U. S. poultry sanitized with a low-concentration chlorine wash.

Washington says the treatment is safe and that there is no scientific basis for the EU to block imports.

Verheugen is the EU cochair of the Transatlantic Economic Council ( TEC), created in 2007 with the aim of tearing down barriers to trade between the United States and the EU.

To get the council off to a good start, both sides presented issues they hoped would be easy to resolve.

Verheugen said he was surprised when the United States put the poultry ban at the top of its list, but after getting the approval of European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso and commission members, “I said ‘yes, we can deliver that.’”

Now, looking back, “it was not the wisest decision to have that on the agenda,” Verheugen said. “I’m absolutely not going to discuss it again,” except to brief U. S. officials on the status of failed efforts to resolve the spat, he said.

Verheugen spoke with reporters after meeting with White House international economic affairs adviser Dan Price, who is the U. S. co-chair of the TEC, and U. S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab and Commerce Secretary Carlos Gutierrez.

In speech earlier this year, Price said the European Commission’s ability to follow through on its promise to lift the ban would be a key early test of whether the TEC can really deliver meaningful results.

The European Commission is expected next week to consider a plan by EU Health Commissioner Androulla Vassiliou for lifting the ban, but Verheugen said he agreed with U. S. officials that it did not really open the EU market.

Vassiliou’s proposal includes a rule that only whole poultry carcasses – not parts or cuts – can be treated with the chlorine wash. Other provisions that discourage U. S. imports include a requirement that poultry meat must be clearly labelled to say it has either been “treated with anti-microbial substances” or “decontaminated by chemicals.”

It also still leaves the final say with EU governments, nearly all of which want the ban to stay in place. Current EU president France has been particularly vocal in its absolute opposition to opening the EU market to chlorine-washed poultry from the United States.

“We will find a solution, but it will not come very, very soon,” Verheugen said. What was though to be “low-hanging fruit” was actually well out of reach, he said.

The TEC had been scheduled to meet this week but other key EU commissioners were unable to attend. It will be held instead between the Nov. 4 U. S. presidential election and the end of the year, but no precise date has been set.

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