Consumer, Labor, and Environmental Groups Tell President Clinton “Change WTO Rules to Ensure Safe Food”

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WASHINGTON - A coalition of consumer, labor, and environmental organizations today urged President Clinton to increase the safety of the global food supply by supporting changes to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

    At the upcoming WTO ministerial conference to be held in Seattle November 30 through December 3, the U.S. and more than 130 other nations will try to agree on an agenda for negotiating changes in international rules governing global trade, including food safety. The current international agreement governing food trade, in effect since 1994, sets rules on when one nation can challenge another nation’s food-safety laws as barriers to trade.

   “America’s WTO agenda should be based on consumers’ — not the food industry’s — priorities,” stated Bruce Silverglade, director of legal affairs for CSPI.

   A letter sent from leading consumer, labor, and environmental groups to the White House Friday noted that President Clinton has stated that efforts to increase international trade should not lead to lower consumer-protection standards. The letter concludes that “Unfortunately, the experience of the last four years . . . demonstrates that [trade agreements] must be reformed in order to meet your objective.”

   Current trade agreements may force the U.S. to accept food-safety standards that provide American consumers with less protection than they already have. For example, foreign countries may call on the WTO to order the U.S. to:

  • permit the use of methyl parathion and other pesticides even though the Environmental Protection Agency banned them because of potential adverse effects on children;
  • allow the import of natural mineral water that contains higher levels of lead and other contaminants than permitted by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA);
  • waive pasteurization requirements for cheese even though pasteurization of dairy products is generally required by the FDA;
  • allow ingredient labeling that does not comply with FDA regulations written to protect consumers who suffer from food allergies and hypersensitivities.

   “If the Clinton Administration doesn’t address these problems at the upcoming WTO meeting, the U.S. may be forced to choose between lowering food-safety standards or paying a penalty to foreign countries whose exports to the U.S. don’t meet our health standards,” stated Silverglade.

   Other groups signing the letter to President Clinton are Food and Allied Service Trades, AFL-CIO; Consumer Federation of America; Sierra Club; Government Accountability Project; Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy; National Consumers League; U.S. Public Interest Research Group; Public Citizen; and the American Public Health Association.

   At a hearing on food safety last month held by the House Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade of the Committee on International Relations, Benjamin Cohen, CSPI senior staff attorney, offered specific suggestions for reforming the WTO.

   “This letter to President Clinton echoes the recent call of more than 60 experts from the United States and 22 foreign countries that the WTO’s rules must be changed so that food safety is not sacrificed in the name of facilitating trade,” said Cohen.