Supply & Safety: Monitoring Imported Food

WWC_page_C_v1On Tuesday, February 5th 2013, the Program on America and the Global Economy (PAGE) hosted a discussion about how international trade policy affects the safety standards for imported food. The panel consisted of Lori Wallach, director of the Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, Ted Poplawski, special assistant to the director on Import Operations and Policy at the FDA, Carmen Stacy, director of Global Issues & Multilateral Affairs at the Grocery Manufacturers Association, and Les Glick, partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur. The event was moderated by Kent Hughes, director of the Program on America and the Global Economy at the Wilson Center.

Lori Wallach was the first to present on the topic and began by outlining how current trade agreements, combined with growing food imports, erode the safety standards for imported food. She stated, “Consumer groups did not get into trade; trade agreements invaded food safety policy.” One of the main points that she emphasized was that the World Trade Organization sanitary and phyto-sanitary (“WTO-SPS”) standards for promoting food safety are ineffective. Prior to the formation of the WTO, imported food safety was regulated on a plant by plant basis, which allowed for more quality control. However, under SPS, a WTO country is generally allowed to import food to the US if their sanitary and phyto-sanitary measures are deemed to be “equivalent”. Wallach expressed concern that “equivalence” is very vague and has led to food safety violations and increasingly infrequent USDA spot checks. She invoked the example of the “Chinese Chicken Incident,” in which the WTO stated that the US ban on Chinese poultry was unfair, to show how international trade policy threatens US domestic food safety. Wallach also expressed the view that food safety standards in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (“TPP”) are not stringent enough to protect consumer welfare, especially since the US imports large amounts of seafood from TPP members.


The next speaker, Carmen Stacy explained the views of the food import industry and its goal to make sure products are safe, while also keeping global supply chains open and flexible. She spoke about the need for transparency in the food import market to make sure that firms and consumers know the origin of the food. Overall, the industry view was largely consistent with current international trade expectations. However, in terms of the TPP, Stacy stated that the food import industry supports a WTO+ food safety policy that is stricter than traditional WTO-SPS standards.


Ted Poplawski spoke about the FDA’s role in regulating imported foods. He noted that the FDA’s main responsibilities towards imported foods were ensuring food safety and administering correct labeling. Poplawski illustrated that 15-20% of US foods come from foreign countries, including 35% of produce, 60% of spices, and 80% of seafood, while less than 2% is inspected. In addition, the FDA has introduced some new food safety framework rules to protect consumers. The most important are: the Produce Safety Standards, which focuses on identified routes of microbial contamination, and the Preventative Controls for Human Foods, which attempts to ascertain risk to prevent hazards. He also described the Voluntary Qualified Importer Program, which gives FDA approved certification to importers that monitor food safety and perform risk based analysis to reach a certain standard. This newly introduced safety framework could greatly improve the food import situation if enforced properly.


The final panelist, Les Glick, presented an alarming video about the lack of regulation for imported foods and the threat of contamination. He then went on express his view that China is the number one problem when it comes to imported food safety.


According to Glick, China’s WTO membership has helped it break into US markets even though it is a known violator of food safety standards. Glick expressed concern that the WTO is hampering the US ability to fully enforce domestic regulation. He pointed to WTO rulings against the US in its attempts to uphold domestic food safety regulations because they  violate the MFN (most favored nation) principle in regards to the SPS standards. Glick stated that it might be a wise idea to take food and agriculture out of the WTO. This would allow countries to enter into bilateral agriculture agreements with their own imported food safety standards and it would also accelerate the Doha round of multilateral trade negotiations, which has been stalled due to disagreements over agricultural trade.

Questions for the panel included clarification over the country of origin labeling (COOL) verdict involving Mexico, Canada and the United States, possible food safety enforcement mechanisms in the TPP, and the issue over how to define a food that is “high risk.”

Posted by Matthew Goldberg


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