Letter to the Honorable William Jefferson Clinton

November 12, 1999

The Honorable William Jefferson Clinton
The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, N.W.
Washington, D.C. 20500

Dear Mr. President:

   We write to urge that the United States take the lead at the upcoming World Trade Organization (“WTO”) Ministerial Conference in ensuring that expanding international trade does not jeopardize important public health safeguards in both the United States and other countries. As you said in your 1998 address at the 50th anniversary of the WTO, we must ensure “that spirited economic competition among nations never becomes a race to the bottom in environmental protections, consumer protections, and labor standards. We should level up, not level down.”

   Unfortunately, the experience of the last four years with the WTO’s Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (“SPS Agreement”) demonstrates that it must be reformed in order to meet your objective. Under the SPS Agreement a subsidiary of the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization called the Codex Alimentarius Commission (“Codex”) is authorized to set international health standards for food, plants, and animals. At its June 1999 meeting Codex -- without objection from the United States -- agreed to numerous international standards that are weaker than ours:

  • an international standard for natural mineral waters that permits higher levels of lead and other contaminants than the Food and Drug Administration (“FDA”) now allows;
  • an international residue tolerance for methyl parathion (and other pesticides) even though the Environmental Protection Agency (as mandated under United States law) has banned methyl parathion for fruits and vegetables because of its potential adverse effects on children;
  • an international standard that does not require pasteurization of dairy products, as is now generally required by the FDA;
  • the use of food additives which, while presumably safe, have not been approved by the FDA for use in the United States; and
  • an international standard for the labeling of a composite ingredient in prepackaged foods that permits it to be listed by a standardized name without declaring all its component ingredients if it is less than 5 percent of the food, even though the FDA requires these components to always be listed in order to protect consumers who suffer from hypersensitivities.
   Under the SPS Agreement these Codex decisions may lead to actions by the WTO that could force the United States to choose between lowering its own food safety standards or paying a penalty to a foreign country whose exports to the United States are hindered by our higher health protections.

   Our concerns are shared by other groups in this country and Europe. The Transatlantic Consumer Dialogue, which was formed in September 1998, has called on the WTO Ministerial Conference to change specific parts of the SPS Agreement because the current SPS Agreement “undercuts governments’ ability to establish and maintain legitimate, non-discriminatory food safety and food-related consumer information labeling policies.” We urge you to support the TACD’s proposal at the WTO meeting in Seattle on November 30-December 3, thereby demonstrating that, in fact, the United States wants to “level up, not level down.”

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