Andrea Tolu is an International Food/Restaurant/Hospitality Writer in Barcelona, Catalonia, Spain

Last year was an intense one for the trade relationships between the European Union and the United States. While the two blocs were resolving the 17-year-old Airbus-Boeing dispute, and a more recent one around steel and aluminum, the U.S. dairy sector went up in arms.

The cause of the uproar were new EU rules requiring stricter safety standards, more border checks and new health certificates for the import of certain live animals and food products of animal origin.

There were particularly important changes for composite products, which contain both plant and animal ingredients. Each category of these products will require a new health certificate or a private attestation. For products containing less than 50% of dairy, egg or fish, these documents had never been mandatory before.

Behind these changes there is a different way to assess risk. “Before, composite products with less than 50% of animal-based ingredients were considered less risky and therefore subject to fewer controls,” said Rob Kooijmans, co-founder of the Food Strategy Institute, a consulting firm based in the Netherlands. “Now, the EU expects the dairy filling in cookies to have the same level of security as a liter of plain milk.”

The new requirements were slated to come into effect on April 21, 2021. A few days before the deadline, Jim Mulhern, president and CEO of the National Milk Producers Federation, and Krysta Harden, president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, wrote a worried letter to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, anticipating disruptions to exports to the EU, and even urging the government to “fight fire with fire” if the EU was “not prepared to genuinely reform its agricultural trade tactics.”

Some of the “deeply problematic requirements” listed in the letter were: mandatory tuberculosis and brucellosis tests for pasteurized dairy products; regular veterinarian checks to animals for foot-and-mouth disease (FMD) and rinderpest, which are not required by the USDA; and residency requirements even for animals from countries with the same FMD status as the U.S.

“These measures have been a long time in the making,” said Kooijmans. “The first risk assessment on composite products was published by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) in 2012. In a way, they are also a response to the Food and Drug Administration’s (FDA) Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA), as the FDA expects foreign food safety authorities to proactively manage risks. It is true that U.S. farmers will have to do more homework to change their practices and obtain the necessary certifications. But these are the exact same rules we have internally. The upgrades are simply levelling the playing field.”

The new requirements pay particular attention not only to the safety of animal products, but also to the health of the animals these products are obtained from. One of the reasons for this additional oversight, said Kooijmans, is the United Kingdom’s BSE outbreak in the 1980s and ’90s, which influenced a lot of the EU food safety regulations in the following years.

Another one, he explained, is that “in Europe, animal farming is particularly intensive. In the U.S. there are farms with several thousands of cows, but the size of those plants is quite big. Over here, we have less space. Cows are kept in relatively small stables, so if there’s an outbreak, it usually gets much bigger. We also need stricter standards to protect the food chain: Part of human food re-enters the cycle as animal feed, and we don’t want that to be contaminated.”

Eventually, the EU recognized that the original April 2021 deadline would not leave enough time to adjust to the changes and granted a transaction period of several months. The old certificates will be accepted until March 15, 2022, provided they were signed before Jan. 15, 2022.

During this extra time, the Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) adapted its EU Dairy Export Verification Program to the new requirements. From now on, all dairy producers exporting to the EU will have to follow the Grade “A” Pasteurized Milk Ordinance or the USDA AMS Milk for Manufacturing Purposes program. In addition to that, there are other “slight changes” that the USDA stated “will add minimal time to our routine audits.”

Quite a reassuring tone after months of turmoil and negotiations.