Four Republican farm state U.S. senators on Thursday expressed concern that possible free trade talks between the United States and European Union may not dismantle longstanding EU barriers to U.S. pork, beef, poultry and other farm products.
"Our trade negotiators must demand of EU officials that barriers to U.S. agricultural products be addressed in any potential trade agreement," the senators said in a letter urging Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus, a Democrat, to schedule a hearing with U.S. trade officials.
The United States and the 27 nations of the EU have been discussing for more than a year the possibility of launching free trade talks and are widely expected in coming weeks or months to make a decision to take that step.
The senators - Chuck Grassley of Iowa, Pat Roberts of Kansas, Mike Enzi of Wyoming and John Thune of South Dakota - said they wanted a hearing because Congress has not passed legislation, known as Trade Promotion Authority, giving the administration specific guidelines for any talks with the EU.
"It is important we know where the discussions with the EU stand, and what exactly has been discussed regarding barriers to agricultural products, so we can determine for ourselves whether the administration is adequately addressing this key trade priority," the senators said.
The United States has been frustrated for years by what it considers the EU's "non-scientific" approach to food safety.
The EU has blocked imports of U.S. genetically modified corn and soybeans, poultry treated with chlorine dioxide and beef with lactic acid to kill pathogens and pork produced from hogs given ractopamine, which promotes lean meat growth.
U.S. trade officials have said they are looking for progress from the EU on agriculture barriers before talks begin.
That is believed to be one of the main reasons that a high-level U.S.-EU working group report on the expected negotiations that was due in December still has not been released.
"I know there is a lot of interest in whether we will decide with our EU colleagues to launch trade negotiations," said Andrea Mead, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Trade Representative's office. "Our work in that regard is ongoing. We want to take the time to get the substance right so that any agreement we might pursue would maximize job-supporting economic opportunities." (Reporting by Doug Palmer; Editing by Eric Walsh)