An event in the European parliament has heard that negotiations on the key US-EU Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) offers a "unique opportunity" for business and consumers.
The debate involving food industry professionals was told that talks on the free trade pact are now entering their "most difficult" phase.
The EU´s chief negotiator Ignacio Garcia Bercero told the packed meeting that the "really difficult work starts now."
But, opening the lively discussion, Mella Frewen, the director general of FoodDrinkEurope, also spoke about the potential "immense benefits" for both business and consumers.
The event in the parliament on 28 January was organised by FoodDrinkEurope, the trade body representing Europe's food and drink industry, and Copa-Cogeca, Europe's agri-food chain association representing European farmers and agri-cooperatives.
The EU and United States - who between them make up 40 per cent of global economic output - have held talks for the past year on creating what would be the world's biggest free trade area, hoping to boost growth and jobs on both sides.
Under an ambitious timetable, they aim to sign TTIP by the end of the year.
Some however, have voiced concerns fearing a transatlantic onslaught of genetically modified foods, hormone-treated beef and chlorinated chicken.
Small farmers in particular are worried about a softening of European food safety standards and a joint "race to the bottom" if liberalised trade rules pit them against American agro-industry giants and food multinationals.
But Frewen said TTIP was a "unique opportunity" to boost economies on both sides of the Atlantic, adding, "If we can seize this chance we could create the world´s largest free trade area."
She pointed out the FoodDrinkEurope and Copa-Cogeca had joined forces to identify "important" non-tariff measures of concern they believe should be addressed in the TTIP negotiations.
These, she said, include addressing the differences between US federal and state legislation "which bring additional administrative burdens and costs."
TTIP negotiators should also provide "clear and in-depth" information on customs cooperation.
"We urge the negotiators to resolve these and other measures during the negotiations. If they can be eliminated, unnecessary and costly bottlenecks to trade will also be removed."
Her comments were echoed by Pekka Pesonen, secretary general of Copa-Cogeca, who admitted that the topic of EU-US negotiations was "thorny" especially against the backdrop of upcoming elections.
He told the 90-minute meeting that, in the fruit and vegetables sector, the "main issue at stake" is the "need to break down phytosanitary barriers that prevent apples and pears reaching the US market, "seemingly with no clear explanation."
Hoping for a "win-win" outcome for both sides, he warned, "There won´t be other opportunities or formats to address this."
The event heard that TTIP would be the biggest bilateral trade deal ever negotiated, resulting in millions of euros of savings for companies and creating hundreds of thousands of jobs. It is claimed that average European households would gain an extra €545 annually, and that Europe's economy would be boosted by around 0.5 per cent of GDP, if such a deal was fully implemented.
Further comment came from Monique Goyens, director general of BEUC, the Brussels-based consumer´s organisation, who told participants she was generally in favour of a trade deal with the US, saying, "Free trade can be good for consumers because it usually means more choice, lower prices and more competition."
But when it comes to consumer protection and food standards she cautioned that TTIP should not result in "lower standards".
She added, "This is not a question of Europe versus US food culture but the US seems to be pushing for a levelling down of EU food protection rules."
"If TTIP results in more choice for consumers then it will have achieved one of its main objectives. It should not be about lowering standards but a shared market in which competitiveness and growth can increase" - Nikolaus Tacke
Negotiations between the US and the EU started in July and if successful, the deal would cover more than 40 per cent of global GDP and account for large shares of world trade and foreign direct investment. The EU-US trade relationship is already the biggest in the world. Traded goods and services are worth €2bn.
Another keynote speaker was Nikolaus Tacke, chairman of AmCham EU´s agriculture and food committee, which represents 150 companies.
He said, "If TTIP results in more choice for consumers then it will have achieved one of its main objectives. It should not be about lowering standards but a shared market in which competitiveness and growth can increase."
It was a message endorsed by two parliamentary committee chairs who also spoke at the debate.
Italian Socialist member Paolo De Castro, who chairs the committee on agriculture and rural development, agreed that TTIP negotiators should not seek to "weaken" European standards but, instead, strive to provide "more opportunities" for its producers.
Vital Moreira, a Socialist member from Portugal, and chairman of the committee on international trade, agreed. He declared, "These trade talks present a golden opportunity for creating a genuine transatlantic marketplace."
The next round of negotiations are scheduled for 17-18 February in Washington, when tariff barriers will be discussed and a stocktaking exercise will take place between Michael Froman, the US trade representative, and EU Trade Commissioner Karel de Gucht.
Negotiators will have to hammer out common rules and regulations on everything from auto safety to banking regulations
Ignacio Garcia Bercero, who will lead the talks, predicted, "We´ve been negotiating with the US for months but let´s be clear: the really difficult work starts now."
Emphasising the importance in the talks of market access and regulatory issues, he advised that it "would be a big mistake" to continue the talks in a "defensive" stance.
In a Q&A session, Luxembourg MEP Astrid Lulling said she was "not very optimistic" about the outcome of the talks, particularly on the phasing out of semi-generic wine names while UKIP deputy Stuart Agnew wondered who the "winners and losers " would be in the talks.
Brussels and Washington have set the ambitious goal of completing negotiations by the end of 2014.The talks are expected to be suspended between mid-April and autumn 2014 because of the renewal of the European institutions.