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For Immediate Release:
June 17, 1997
Agreements Threaten Food Safety
U.S. Could Be Compelled to Accept
Imported Foods Falling Below FDA/USDA
U.S. negotiators must toughen their stance at proceedings in Geneva next week or face the
possibility that U.S. consumers will be subjected to unsafe imported food products ranging from
unpasteurized cheese to poorly inspected meat, according to a 38-page report released today by
the Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI).
The negotiations will take place during proceedings of the Codex Alimentarius, a subsidiary of the
United Nations' Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization. Codex
develops international food safety standards that since 1994 can be used by the World Trade
Organization to settle international trade disputes.
On the agenda for Codex during the week of June 23 are international standards permitting:
- Unpasteurized cheese and other dairy products. Such products were banned by the U.S. Food
and Drug Administration (FDA) in 1987. Prior to the FDA action, the sale of such products in
the U.S. caused a number of deaths and severe illnesses.
- Meat products inspected by company employees rather than by government-paid inspectors.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) has required government inspection of meat
since 1907. Just last year, President Clinton announced new regulations to improve meat
inspection in the wake of deaths from E.coli O157:H7 contaminated hamburger.
- Bottled mineral water with lower levels of minerals than those permitted by the FDA. Amid
much fanfare, the FDA finalized standards for bottled water less than two years ago.
- Food additives not approved by the FDA for use in the United States.
U.S. negotiators have been steamrolled, stonewalled, and stepped on by the international
community, stated Bruce Silverglade, CSPI director of legal affairs. These standards should
never have advanced this far in the Codex process. Now we are faced with their adoption, and
the likelihood that other countries will use them as leverage in trade disputes to challenge stricter
U.S. regulatory requirements, he said.
- Fruit juices, milk, and other foods contaminated with lead at levels exceeding U.S. standards.
Such food products could be harmful to children.
Since 1994, countries wishing to import foods into the U.S. could challenge as a trade barrier any
USDA or FDA regulation that exceeds Codex standards. The World Trade Organization relies
on Codex standards when settling such disputes. Using such procedures, the United States,
itself, is pressuring the European Union to accept imported U.S. meat from cattle treated with
growth hormones even though many European governments believe that the use of such
hormones raises safety concerns.
The proposed international standards, Silverglade said, if approved by Codex, would threaten
basic U.S. regulatory requirements that provide for the pasteurization of dairy products, limit lead
contamination of food, mandate government inspection of meat, and protect consumers from
inadequately tested food additives.
CSPI's report recommended specific actions to protect U.S. consumers from the threats of weak
international standards. Among those recommendations:
- U.S. government representatives participating in Codex proceedings should vigorously oppose
standards that are weaker than U.S. regulations and call for votes on controversial matters.
- U.S. trade negotiators should advocate the development of non-binding Codex guidelines that
could not be used in trade disputes.
- The U.S. Codex office should be moved from the Department of Agriculture to the Food and
Drug Administration to ensure that health concerns take priority over trade issues.
Our delegations have been badly skewed toward food-industry representation. The situation has
gotten so bad that the United States had to publicly apologize to Codex for allowing industry
representatives to participate in meetings open only to representatives of government,
- The participation of food industry representatives in Codex proceedings should be limited and
consumer representation increased to ensure that the U.S. delegation to such meetings is
Part of the problem, Silverglade said, is that the USDA and FDA are being forced to perform a
dual mission -- protecting the health of American consumers and also facilitating international
trade. Conflicts of interest inevitably result when trade objectives clash with public health goals.
It's time for the USDA and FDA to stop trying to wear two hats. The agencies should stop
trying to facilitate international trade and re-devote themselves to protecting the health of
American consumers, Silverglade said. If they don't, he added, an increase in world trade will
result in a decrease in food safety standards.
The Center for Science in the Public Interest (CSPI), based in Washington, D.C., is a nonprofit
health-advocacy organization that focuses on nutrition, food safety, and alcohol policy. It
fought for -- and won -- the law that requires Nutrition Facts labels on all food packages.
CSPI is supported largely by the 900,000 subscribers to its Nutrition Action Healthletter and
accepts no industry or government funding.
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