Will U.S. Trade Deal With Europe Eliminate Consumer Protections?

Tomorrow, Tuesday, on Election Day, Washington State voters will consider the question "Yes On 522: To Label Genetically-Modified Foods." The right to choose your food is a right that American consumers want and every European citizen already has. But at the behest of the powerful agribusiness industry, U.S. trade negotiators want to take it away from all of us on both sides of the Atlantic in a secret deal. U.S. PIRG is among the consumer groups pushing back.


Tomorrow, Tuesday, on Election Day, Washington State voters will consider the question “Yes On 522: To Label Genetically-Modified Foods.” The agribusiness and grocery industries have set a fundraising record against the consumer choice proposal. We only know the full details of their spending because the Attorney General of Washington had to sue the Grocery Manufacturers of America, key backers of the “No on 522” committee, to enforce compliance with campaign finance disclosure laws. Here is WashPIRG’s video urging consumers to vote yes for labeling GMO food.

The right to choose your food based on whether it is grown naturally, or genetically engineered, is a right that American consumers want and all European citizens already have. But at the behest of the powerful agribusiness industry, U.S. trade negotiators could take it away from all of us on both sides of the Atlantic as they sit behind mostly closed doors to negotiate a secretive deal known as the TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). “Mostly-closed doors”? Well, yes. The U.S. negotiators have let some 600 or more corporate special interest “advisors” in on the negotiations. There is one public interest “advisor,” president emeritus Rhoda Karpatkin of Consumers Union. No one else can see or disclose draft documents or sit in on meetings.

U.S. PIRG is among the consumer groups pushing back against the idea of using secretive trade negotiations as a tool to reduce consumer protections. Last week, in Brussels, as members of the Trans Atlantic Consumer Dialogue, or TACD.org, we co-hosted an open conference, “The TransAtlantic Trade and Investment Partnership: can it bring benefits to the people?” In the photo at top right, my TACD co-chair, Monique Goyens, Director-General of BEUC, the European Consumer Organization, and I welcome conference participants.

The event was attended by over 200 government, consumer and industry officials. The speakers included leading U.S. and European trade and consumer officials as well as leaders from consumer groups. Here is the pdf summary report from the conference (and the agenda). At the event, attendees first heard keynote presentations from the chief U.S. and European TTIP negotiators, Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Dan Mullaney and Ignacio Garcia-Bercero of the European Commission’s Directorate General for Trade and from U.S. Federal Trade Commission Chairwoman Edith Ramirez and her European counterpart Neven Mimica, the European Commissioner for Consumer Policy. Then, various experts discussed the

major issues, with audience interaction. In the foreground of the audience photo at left, clockwise from left, see EU Commissioner Mimica, FTC Chairwoman Ramirez, USTR’s Dan Mullaney and Public Citizen president Rob Weissman. In the right bottom photo, Ignacio Garcia-Bercero (l) and Dan Mullaney take audience questions. (All photos courtesy BEUC.)

In addition to panels debating specific consumer protection issues, such as GMO labeling, financial regulations and privacy, the conference placed emphasis on two other major concerns: the non-transparency/secrecy of the negotiations and a so-called investor-state dispute resolution provision of the draft TTIP that would grant powerful special interests equivalence to governments to challenge trade provisions in non-judicial tribunals. No similar powers are being considered for consumer, environmental, labor or other non-corporate interests.

The U.S. government’s strongest pro-consumer position in these negotiations is to keep all Dodd-Frank Financial Reform and Consumer Protection Act improvements passed after 2008 financial collapse off the TTIP table. But on matters including investor-state resolution, privacy, chemical and food safety standards, and transparency of the negotiations, consumer leaders are very concerned about the U.S. posture.

Rhoda Karpatkin, President Emeritus of Consumers Union in the US, highlighted that a trade agreement which touches upon all areas of interest for consumers – from the regulation of food to chemicals to financial services – cannot be negotiated behind closed doors by officials and then presented to legislators as “take it or leave it”. The recent failure of the ACTA agreement showed that the demands and expectations of civil society cannot be ignored.

In our concluding remarks, Monique Goyens and I reemphasized the importance of consumer engagement in the trade negotiations process:

In summing up the day’s events, Monique Goyens, Director General of BEUC and EU Chair of TACD, highlighted a hotly debated topic that formed a common thread across the various policy discussions, namely the proposed inclusion of Investor State Dispute Resolution provisions in the TTIP: “A core concern we have with this trade deal is the suggestion of an investor/state dispute resolution system which would allow companies to sue governments for financial compensation. This brazen approach leaves open the possibility of private judgments being passed, outside of court, over governments’ future efforts to tighten up consumer protection. Such resolution schemes veer perilously close to what would essentially be corporate courts, preserving such interests over and above the public good.”

Ed Mierzwinski, Consumer Programme Director of the US Federation of Public Interest Research Groups (US PIRG) and US Chair of TACD, raised again the issue of transparency in his closing remarks: “Trade negotiators need to understand that corporate special interests have a plan to hijack their treaty and use it to undercut hard-fought, democratically approved privacy, food safety and other consumer rights unless their negotiations are transparent and strongly consider the views and needs of consumers on both sides of the pond.”

The TTIP negotiations have just begun. There is still a chance to repair them. But as Yves Smith and Dean Baker explained on Bill Moyers and Company this week, the nearly-completed Trans-Pacific Partnership provides a stark warning that our concerns about the TTIP are real: 

“Both have written extensively about the TPP and tell Bill the pact actually has very little to do with free trade. Instead, says Dean Baker, co-director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research, “This really is a deal that’s being negotiated by corporations for corporations and any benefit it provides to the bulk of the population of this country will be purely incidental.” Yves Smith, an investment banking expert who runs the Naked Capitalism blog adds: “There would be no reason to keep it so secret if it was in the interest of the public.”


Ed Mierzwinski

Senior Director, Federal Consumer Program, U.S. PIRG Education Fund

Ed oversees U.S. PIRG’s federal consumer program, helping to lead national efforts to improve consumer credit reporting laws, identity theft protections, product safety regulations and more. Ed is co-founder and continuing leader of the coalition, Americans For Financial Reform, which fought for the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act of 2010, including as its centerpiece the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. He was awarded the Consumer Federation of America's Esther Peterson Consumer Service Award in 2006, Privacy International's Brandeis Award in 2003, and numerous annual "Top Lobbyist" awards from The Hill and other outlets. Ed lives in Virginia, and on weekends he enjoys biking with friends on the many local bicycle trails.