|Food Safety and Inspection
United States Department of Agriculture
Washington, D.C. 20250-3700
Remarks prepared for delivery by Dr. Catherine Woteki, Under Secretary for Food Safety, before the Farm Journal, November 14, 1997, Washington, D.C.
Good afternoon. It's a pleasure to be with you today to discuss food safety and global trade. On the agenda, the topic for this discussion is,"Food Safety Becomes an Intractable Trade Barrier." Taking a bit of poetic license, I would like to instead frame this as a question. Is food safety an intractable trade barrier? Today, my goal is to show you that the answer to this question is a resounding "No."
A discussion of food safety and global trade must begin with the premise that freer trade is good for America, and that is a premise that USDA strongly supports. This isn't just an opinion--it's a fact supported by hard data--data that you may have already heard from other speakers yesterday and today. Let me give you a few examples:
Agriculture is the leading positive contributor to the U.S. trade balance.
Agricultural exports have increased 50 percent in the past 5 years.
Farm exports support 1 million good-paying U.S. jobs.
Agriculture is twice as dependent on exports as the average U.S. industry, and that number will only increase in the future.
And trade in agricultural commodities is important not only for the U.S. economy, but for world food security. The United States is developing a U.S. Action Plan on Food Security to strengthen what the U.S. Government, the private sector, non-governmental organizations, and other sectors are doing to reduce hunger and malnutrition both at home and abroad, and food safety will be an important component of that action plan. Internationally, food safety will be an integral part of actions developed to assist countries with poor food security to become more self-reliant.
We have a responsibility to our public, and to the rest of the world, to make trade work. But we also have a responsibility to make sure that food is safe, regardless of whether it is produced domestically or imported.
I believe these two important responsibilities are not at odds with each other. On the contrary, the economic incentive to increase international trade can actually help us to improve food safety at the same time. It provides trading partners with a strong incentive to agree on food safety standards, which will in the long run, improve the safety of food worldwide.
I admit that looking at some of the recent disputes involving food safety, it is easy to become pessimistic about reaching this goal. Despite our commitment to international food safety standards and bilateral consultations as a means of improving trade relations, there are instances where food safety is being used by countries as a barrier to trade.
We have had a history of problems with the European Union regarding such food safety issues as hormones and anti-microbial treatments.
Korea recently had a concern about a positive test for E. coli O157:H7 in boxed beef originating from a U.S. plant.
And in late 1995 and early 1996, Russia halted U.S. poultry exports from the United States because of a variety of animal health and wholesomeness concerns.
That is why it is so important that the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) established the principle that countries must ensure that their sanitary and phytosanitary measures are based on science and risk assessment principles. We must continue to push for science-based standards as a means of avoiding trade disputes.
As we travel down this road, we are sure to have disagreements about what exactly those standards should be. But I believe that is simply part of the process that we must endure in order to achieve our ultimate goal of preventing trade disputes based on food safety concerns. We will be tested, but if we remain resolute in our commitment to base our food safety requirements on good science, we will be successful in achieving that goal in the long term.
We must also be careful, with the new emphasis on microbial testing, to clarify what we mean by safe food. Our strategy is to maintain a science-based system to prevent, or reduce where possible and control, pathogens in raw products. FSIS cannot say to its trading partners, or even to American public, that raw meat and poultry can, or should, be considered free of pathogens. But we can assure them that the United States has one of the most advanced and one of the best food inspection systems in the world, and is the world leader in establishing unprecedented pathogen performance standards for such products.
There are three components to our food safety strategy, as it relates to international trade. First, we are ensuring that our domestic food safety programs are science-based and consistent with international trade obligations. Second, we have a sound system to ensure the safety of meat and poultry products we import. And third, we are committed to the development of international food safety standards through the Codex Alimentarius Commission as a means of harmonizing standards upward to the highest level of food safety.
Let me review these three areas briefly.
First, we have a strategy in place to ensure that our domestic food safety programs are science-based and consistent with international trade obligations. In 1993, following a tragic outbreak of foodborne illness attributed to E. coli O157:H7 in undercooked hamburgers, USDA began a comprehensive overhaul of its food safety system. USDA had known for some time that changes were needed, but the outbreak provided the impetus for change and mobilized government, industry, and public resources toward a common food safety goal.
In 1996, after a thoroughly public process, including input from foreign trading partners, USDA published its landmark rule on Pathogen Reduction and Hazard Analysis and Critical Control Points (HACCP). The rule requires all plants that slaughter and process meat and poultry to implement HACCP systems as a means of preventing contamination from pathogens and other hazards. To make sure HACCP systems are working as intended, the rule also sets in-plant performance standards for Salmonella, and we will conduct testing to ensure those standards are met. Indeed, this is a very significant step, because it is the first time USDA has set performance standards for a broad range of raw meat and poultry products.
We will begin implementing these two provisions of the rule in January 1998, starting with the largest plants. Requirements for Standard Operating Procedures for Sanitation and testing for generic E. coli are already in place in all plants.
We have also adopted a farm-to-table approach to food safety, and we're making progress by working closely with other government agencies, professional groups, academia, and industry. For instance, at the animal production level and intermediate stages before the slaughter plant, USDA is working with producer groups to develop and encourage measures to reduce food safety hazards associated with animals presented for slaughter. We believe that the voluntary application of food safety assurance programs, based on HACCP principles, has role in reducing risks.
At the transportation to retail level of the farm-to-table chain, we are working with the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to develop standards governing the safety of foods during distribution. We are placing particular emphasis on time and temperature control as a means of minimizing the growth of pathogenic microorganisms.
At the retail level, we are working with FDA, and with State officials, to ensure that adoption of science-based standards and to foster HACCP-type preventive approaches--largely through the Food Code process. The Food Code is a model code that States and local jurisdictions can adopt in part or in total.
The high priority being given to improving food safety in the United States is evident in President Clinton's Food Safety Initiative, which was announced in January. It includes measures to further and more comprehensively modernize food inspection and manufacturing procedures, increases research into foodborne pathogens, creates an early warning system to detect and respond to foodborne outbreaks, and strengthens coordination among Federal, State and local food safety agencies.
In October, President Clinton announced another step in the Food Safety Initiative to ensure the safety of domestic and imported produce. The initiative helps to improve domestic food safety by directing the Department of Health and Human Services to work with USDA, and in close cooperation with the agricultural community, to issue guidance on good agricultural and manufacturing practices for fruits and vegetables.
In addition to making our domestic food safety programs more science-based, we also have a sound system for ensuring the safety of imported meat and poultry. First, we review the meat and poultry systems in countries that export to the United States to ensure that inspection procedures, standards, and other requirements are "at least equal to" those of the United States. Countries must undergo a rigorous review process before they become eligible to export meat and poultry to the United States.
Once a country becomes eligible, we conduct on-site review of its inspection system. If a country does not continue to operate an inspection system equivalent to the U.S. system, it is removed from the list of countries eligible to export to the United States.
Next, we re-inspect meat and poultry products at ports of entry before they are allowed into U.S. commerce. Re-inspection is a further check of the effectiveness of the foreign country's inspection system. Imported products that are subject to further processing are inspected once more in a U.S. federally inspected establishment.
We are requiring foreign plants to meet the same, or equivalent, requirements that domestic plants are subject to under the Pathogen Reduction and HACCP rule. We informed the 37 countries eligible to export to the United States what the new requirements were and the deadlines for implementation. We then directed them to tell us how they intended to meet the new requirements. We are now verifying, through audits, that countries are carrying out the procedures as planned. Requiring objective measures of plant performance in foreign plants will enable us to better evaluate whether plants are meeting our food safety objectives.
The President's initiative to ensure the safety of domestic and imported food directed FDA to seek similar legal authority regarding imported fruits, vegetables, and other foods. This legislation would be similar to existing law requiring USDA to halt the importation of meat and poultry from countries where food safety systems are not on par with the U.S. system.
The third component of our food safety strategy as it relates to international trade is to work towards the development of international food safety standards through the Codex Alimentarius Commission. We believe it is the most appropriate venue for bringing science, risk assessment, and equivalency to the fore internationally.
It is in the best interests of U.S. consumers, producers, and food processors, to support the Codex process. The public and industry are best protected by international food safety standards that are based on science and risk assessment. And many developing countries don't have the resources to establish their own food safety standards. Without Codex, the alternative for these countries may be no standards at all.
And to those who would argue that such harmonization actually lowers food safety standards, we retain, under current trade agreements, the sovereign right to set domestic standards to provide the level of protection we need, based on science and risk assessment.
This does not mean the Codex process is perfect, but it is a process worth investing in. For instance, Codex activities have been criticized by some as not adequately taking into account U.S. trade policy, so we recently established a new Codex policy committee that is designed to raise the level of policy input into the process and provides Codex with a higher level of representation by the U.S. government. The committee, which I will chair, will include representatives from the U.S. trade representative's office, the State Department, and the Foreign Agricultural Service. We will continue to have a Codex technical committee to keep things moving at the science and technology level, and this committee will now be able to devote its attention entirely to these technical issues.
As we pursue these strategies, we have a mechanism in place for addressing these situations where food safety is being used as a barrier to trade--namely, the World Trade Organization. We will be aggressive in challenging unfair trade barriers relating to meat, poultry, and other foods by going to the WTO to fight on the merits of sound science. The ruling on beef from animals administered hormones, for instance, was a critical victory achieved through this process.
The United States has fought hard to gain new discipline in GATT, such as time frames to address disputes. And our continued work in developing science-based standards will hopefully help to prevent such occurrences in the future. We must insist on sound science as the final arbiter of our disputes. Bringing facts to the table helps to temper other pressures.
As we continue our progress in these three areas, we need to do a better job of educating the public about food safety issues and bringing them more into the process. One question posed by the Farm Journal is whether science and consumer attitudes are on a collision course. I don't believe they are. USDA's experience in conducting public meetings over the past few years leads me to believe just the opposite. USDA has been able to implement science-based programs and policies with consumer input and confidence. In fact, what has been remarkable is the quality of dialogue to come out of some of our public meetings, with consumer groups and industry groups addressing food safety issues in a thoughtful and informed manner. I believe we are not giving consumers enough credit to say that they cannot accept scientific facts in forming their views.
We do have a responsibility, however, to provide the hard data needed to make our case. We can't ask consumers to support us without proof that what we are doing makes good sense.
In closing, is food safety an intractable barrier to trade? The answer, I believe, is "No." With the World Trade Organization, we have a scientifically-based approach to negotiation and conflict resolution to keep food safety from being an intractable barrier to trade. We must let it do its job, and remain committed to science-based standards.
We must also look at world trade in agricultural commodities as an incentive to improve food safety world-wide. We are making progress in the development of international food safety standards, and I believe it is to our benefit to continue along that road.
For Further Information Contact:
FSIS Food Safety Education and Communications Staff
Public Outreach and Communications
Phone: (202) 720-9352
Fax: (202) 720-9063
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