The U.S. biotechnology industry is awaiting this fall's deadline for Europe to speed up its approval of new biotech food and crops -- a process Washington has long complained is woefully slow -- in the hope of increased access to a major market.
After a World Trade Organization ruling last year found undue delays in Europe's approval of biotech products, the EC has until November 21 to bring its system up to speed.
We still ... are not getting approvals through (the European) Commission, much less on a timely ... and science-based basis, said Sharon Bomer, vice president of industry group BIO, which includes major biotech players such as BASF Plant Sciences, a unit of Germany's BASF, and Bayer Cropscience.
Yet the industry is hoping the Bush administration won't have to press its complaint further at the WTO, which could ultimately lead to trade retaliations. Instead, it wants an amicable agreement to a conflict that has ruffled trans-Atlantic trade relations for years.
After a challenge from the United States, Canada, and Argentina in 2003, the WTO found the EC had a de facto moratorium on approving biotech products from 1999 to 2003.
Canice Nolan, who heads food safety affairs for the European Commission's delegation in Washington, said the EC is studying how to tighten up its internal processes and assessing other steps to streamline its approval system.
We plan to have this done before the time limit runs out, Nolan said.
EU-U.S. discussions are continuing on the issue, with the next meeting scheduled for October, Bomer said.
Biotech products are increasingly common the world over and are used in animal feed, human food and other products. Genetic modification can, among other things, boost vitamin content in food or make crops resistant to pesticides.
But they are divisive in Europe, where some consumers worry about their safety. The issue has also polarized the bloc's member states, with some routinely opposing new approvals.
Bomer said the case is important not only because other countries may look to Europe for guidance on biotech regulation, but also because the bloc's zero-tolerance approach on unapproved products has the potential to derail massive trade flows from nations with more permissive systems.
It has a tremendous impact on billions of dollars worth of trade when our approval systems are so disparate, she said.
A recent internal report last month said the EU took at least 2-1/2 years, and often much longer, to complete new GMO authorizations, compared with 15 months in the United States.
The issue rankles some in Washington. Last fall, a group of lawmakers pressed U.S. Trade Representative Susan Schwab to do more to force compliance from Europe.
Schwab's office declined comment on what steps the United States would take if it deems that Europe still falls short.