WASHINGTON — American activists urged European trade negotiators on Wednesday not to weaken environmental and food standards as they begin talks in Washington on a trans-Atlantic free trade agreement.
About 50 activist groups were allowed to make 10-minute presentations each to trade negotiators and the media, expressing their views on aspects of the agreement. They included environmental organizations such as the Sierra Club, labor representatives like the AFL-CIO and a range of food, agricultural, business and intellectual property interests.
Some of the speakers praised Europe's approach to product safety, regulation of chemicals and strict limitations on food containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs) – which is expected to be one of the more contentious subjects in the negotiations.
"We are great admirers of the precautionary approach the European Union takes," said William Waren, a trade policy analyst at environmental group Friends of the Earth U.S. He said in Europe, the burden is on companies to show products are safe, as opposed to the U.S. where the onus is on the government to show products are unsafe.
Alexis Baden-Mayer, representing the Organic Consumers Association, urged European negotiators not to give in to U.S. pressure to relax tight restrictions on genetically modified food.
"Anti-GMO activists in the United States think everything is better in Europe," she said. "The frightening thing for American activists who think things are so much better in Europe is that there are some (European) countries willing to cooperate with the United States on this issue."
She urged the delegates to "take food off the table" in the trade talks.
Celeste Drake of the AFL-CIO, the largest U.S. labor federation, warned Europe against adopting U.S.-style rules for the workplace and labor and said American workers would like to have the same information and consultation rights that European workers have with their labor councils.
Not all the activist groups heaped praise on Europe. Some urged the European Union to relax restrictions on importing products that don't meet its high standards. Soybean growers and other agriculture groups pressed for the easing of limitations on genetically modified food and biofuels and on meat that has been washed with chemicals.