Comments of Bruce Silverglade at the "Global Policy: Local
The title of this years conference, and I think we
can all agree that it has been an excellent conference, is "Global Policy: Local
Issues." Carol Foreman has just described to you several ways in which global policy
is affecting us in one very important area -- the food we depend on for life sustaining
nourishment. I would like to make a few additional points on this subject and provide some
closing observations regarding global policy and consumer protection.
International food marketers can have a hard time selling
overseas. In fact, a lot can be lost in the translation of even the name of a product. As Newsweek
magazine reported, some brands sold over there just wouldnt make it over here. Take
for example the brand of Italian Yogurt called "Mukk," -- not very appetizing.
The makers of the Japanese soft drink called "Sweat" may face similar marketing
problems. Then, there is the French breakfast cereal called "Craspy Fruit," or
the popular brand of Portuguese Tuna called "Atum Bom."
As you can see, food companies can face great difficulties
selling their products overseas.
Governments, however, are trying to make it easier on
manufacturers by supporting free trade agreements that call for international standards
setting and harmonization. While brand names may always lose something in the translation,
attempts to internationally harmonize government standards for food additives, pesticides,
contaminants, vitamin and mineral content, and even labeling requirements are being made
in order to facilitate trade.
Since 1994, the U.S. has been bound by an international
agreement called the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures,
commonly referred to as the "SPS Agreement." The thrust of the SPS Agreement in
the area of food regulation is to encourage nations to support the development of
international food safety and labeling standards and to adopt those standards as domestic
requirements in order to ease the flow of food products across borders.
The SPS Agreement designates the Codex Alimentarius
Commission (Codex), a subsidiary body of the United Nations Food and Agriculture
Organization and World Health Organization, as one of the primary sources of recognized
international food standards. Domestic regulatory requirements that are based on Codex
standards are presumed to be consistent with the SPS Agreement. Regulatory requirements
that exceed Codex standards, however, may be challenged as trade barriers. In such cases,
a complaint can be brought before the World Trade Organization (WTO), which decides
whether health and safety regulations that exceed Codex standards are scientifically
justified or constitute an illegal trade barrier. Member nations must abide by the
WTOs decision or face trade sanctions.
Codex standards have therefore assumed a new importance
since any regulation issued by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and the U.S.
Department of Agriculture (USDA) that exceeds them can be challenged as a trade barrier.
In recognition of the new global regulatory framework, the FDA has asked for public
comment on how and when the agency should adopt Codex standards as U.S. regulatory
To the extent that international harmonization of
regulatory requirements elevates health and safety regulations to a consistent level of
excellence, consumers worldwide are well-served. However, if harmonization tends to reduce
standards to a lower common denominator, then consumer health and safety may be
jeopardized regardless of the economic benefits brought by increased trade.
And so we have to ask ourselves the question: what is the
true price of free trade?
CSPI is concerned that the answer to this question has not
been adequately researched.
For example, we need to determine if the SPS Agreement is
resulting in "downward harmonization" of health and safety standards and, if so,
what will the impact be on the American consumer?
In the last year, the U.S. has repeatedly failed in
persuading Codex to adopt positions favored by the Administration. For example, Codex has
adopted, or advanced over strenuous objections by the U.S., standards and guidelines
- Inspection systems operated by company employees rather than
by government-paid officials;
- Nutrient content claims not permitted by FDA food labeling
- Food additives not approved by FDA; and
- Levels of lead in fruit juices, milk, and other foods
consumed by children that exceed U.S. standards.
These standards will carry a presumption of validity in
trade disputes, and it may be just a matter of time before the U.S. government must decide
whether to accept imports of these products or face trade sanctions. Ultimately, we fear
that Congress and the Administration may capitulate and accept imports of food products
currently not permitted to be sold here in deference to the interests of U.S. agricultural
exporters who do not want to see the U.S. government rock the boat and suffer retaliatory
trade measures from abroad. Worse yet, domestic producers may then argue, not
unreasonably, that FDA and USDA regulatory requirements should be lowered to similar
levels so as to not discriminate against domestic producers. What will be the impact on
consumers? We really dont know. What will be the true price of free trade? That is
yet to be determined.
Fortunately, the SPS agreement is up for review this year
by member nations. Negotiators from around the world have scheduled a series of four
meetings in Geneva to decide whether the agreement should be modified. The U.S. food
industry believes that the SPS agreement helps compel other nations to accept U.S.
agricultural exports and does not want to see the agreement changed. But in light of the
problems that are occurring with Codex, we believe that the U.S. should support amendments
to the SPS Agreement, and we urge those active in the consumer movement to join with us.
The global economy is here to stay, and there is little question that regulatory
requirements will be harmonized internationally. However, the question remains as to
whether harmonization will lead to an upgrading of health standards to world class levels
or the downgrading of standards to the lowest common denominator.
In the past year, CSPI has committed itself to becoming
active on international issues that affect domestic consumer laws and regulations. As part
of this effort, we have successfully petitioned the Codex Alimentarius for recognition so
that we will be able to participate in international proceedings. We have formed a
coalition with consumer groups overseas called the International Association of Food and
Consumer Organizations which we intend to work with on global issues. We are developing an
international media list. We have opened an office in Canada.
I encourage each of you to expand your efforts
internationally as well. If I can leave you with just one thought, it is that the American
consumer community must become active on a global level. This is no longer just work for
international affairs specialists, but rather for each of us to integrate into our
everyday activities as consumer advocates and researchers. By working together, we can
help determine the true price of free trade and ensure that our common mission to advance
the consumers interest is fulfilled.