By Philip Blenkinsop
BRUSSELS (Reuters) - Consumers risk losing out in a planned free-trade deal between Europe and the United States if big business succeeds in loosening standards, European consumer and environmental groups warned on Tuesday.
U.S. and European Union negotiators are holding a second round of talks in Brussels this week on what would be the world's biggest free-trade deal, with a special focus on reducing regulatory barriers to trade.
Monique Goyens, director general of the European consumer organization BEUC, acknowledged that a trade agreement could lower prices and give consumers more choice.
"But all the benefits could be undermined by the risks of watering down European consumer regulation," she said.
BEUC, Friends of the Earth and the European Public Health Alliance told a joint news conference they were concerned that mutual recognition of regulations, designed to cut costs, would in fact result in the adoption of the lowest standards.
"It's difficult to see how you can have mutual recognition unless it's a race-to-the-bottom approach," said Friends of the Earth Europe director Magda Stoczkiewicz.
EU Trade Commissioner Karel De Gucht has repeatedly said EU regulation on genetically modified (GM) food will not changed, but the United States considers this a trade barrier that must be reduced.
Consumers groups fear a deal will lead to more GM crops used in products sold in Europe, where there is widespread public distrust of the technology, with looser labeling rules preventing consumers from making informed choices.
The European Union has already dropped its ban on certain U.S. meat imports such as beef washed in lactic acid and poultry washed in chlorine.
The European associations said their comments were not designed as an attack on U.S. standards, but European consumers were broadly protected by a requirement that corporations prove their toys, chemicals and other products do not cause harm.
The U.S. approach is more to allow consumers to obtain damages for actual harm, they said.
U.S. consumers could also suffer if current tough regulations on medical devices, financial services or alcohol were watered down, they said.
Among the European associations' greatest concerns is a provision in the future trade deal that would allow foreign companies to bring claims against a country if it breaches the treaty. This, they said, would limit a country's right to pass laws to protect its citizens or the environment.
(Additional reporting by Robin Emmott; Editing by Robin Pomeroy)