An unexpected bombshell dropped on the European poultry industry in June, when the World Trade Organisation demanded the re-instatement of the EU’s special low import tariff for lightly salted poultrymeat.
The ruling threatens a return to the situation of three years ago, when a rising tide of cheap imported poultry with added salt was poised to engulf the EU further processing sector.
The development could result in serious damage to the EU poultry industry from imports of chicken breast that are significantly cheaper than those arriving at present, warns the EU poultry processors’ association, AVEC; while the market would be flooded with chicken to which salt had been added unnecessarily.
In the UK, British Poultry Council chief executive Peter Bradnock described the outcome of the case as preposterous.
“Here we have the Food Standards Authority and its counterparts across Europe campaigning to reduce salt levels in food, and now the EU is being forced to import hundreds of thousands of tonnes of poultry where salt has been deliberately added to avoid the proper import tariff.”
The WTO case dates back to June 2002, when Brussels acted to close a long-standing loophole in the import classifications, which allowed raw poultrymeat to be imported at a greatly reduced tariff if salt had been added to the meat to a level of at least 1.2%.
The intention was to halt a trend that had seen imports of salted poultrymeat rise from virtually nothing to 225,000 tonnes from 1996 to 2001.
The Commission’s position was that it was all a mistake, and the lower tariff category was only ever intended for raw meat where the salt content was sufficiently high to act as a preservative. So it amended the tariffs accordingly.
However, Brazil and Thailand took out a case under the WTO grievance procedures, claiming that the action taken by Brussels was protectionist. Now, three years later, the WTO has agreed with them.
The salted meat is typically used in added-value products such as nuggets and ready meals, where its presence is less noticeable.