What's New -- CSPI Press Releases

June 17, 1997

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International Trade Agreements Threaten Food Safety Standards

U.S. Could Be Compelled to Accept Imported Foods Falling Below FDA/USDA Requirements

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:

"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.

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:

"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," Silverglade said.

"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.