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Global Trade Watch, Fall 1997
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Food related illness in the U.S. is on the rise: dangerous beef, contaminated strawberries, raspberries and basil. Increasingly, these threats involve imported food. Unfortunately, this is not surprising, as the United States is importing an increasingly larger share of its food supply.
As Congress considers the Clinton Administration fast track approval process for trade agreements, impact of trade on the safety of the U.S. food supply must be considered.
The rapid growth in imported food and current trade rules governing those imports are forcing U.S. consumers to increasingly rely on international bodies and foreign governments to regulate and enforce food safety. U.S. agencies like the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) or the Department of Agriculture (USDA) are less able to protect consumers from imported food which, according to government data, is much more likely to be unsafe than U.S. produced food.
While there is certainly room for improvement, the U.S. food safety system is perhaps the strongest and most effective in the world. The system by which federal and state agencies set and enforce food safety standards is more transparent and less influenced by industry than are international food standard setters, and is, most importantly, fully accountable to American citizens.
However, recent international trade agreements, such as NAFTA and the Uruguay Round of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), restrict how food safety can be protected in the United States. Today's trade rules determine a nation's ability to set pesticide contamination limits, beef inspection standards and what chemicals or other additives are allowed. The experience of the North American Free Trade Agreement exemplifies how trade rules jeopardize the safety and quality of food sold in the United States. Our findings:
NAFTA and Food Safety
Fact: Under NAFTA, food imports from Mexico and Canada have dramatically increased (40%).
Fact: Under NAFTA, inspection of imported food from Mexico and Canada has decreased.
Fact: Food from Mexico is more likely to be contaminated with illegal levels of pesticides than U.S. grown food.
Fact: Beef produced in Canada, which has increased under NAFTA, is not properly inspected at the US border.
Fact: The increased volume of trade under NAFTA has undermined the ability of the U.S. to protect U.S. farmers against pests and disease, jeopardizing U.S. grown food.
Fact: Meat and Poultry imported from Mexico and Canada is not inspected for dangerous chemicals which may be used in those countries.
Foodborne Illness: A Growing Public Health Problem
U.S. Foodborne Illnesses Number Between 6.5 to 81 Million Each Year
A 1994 study by the non-profit Council for Agricultural Science and Technology estimated that between 6.5 million and 81 million incidents of foodborne illness occur in the United States each year with up to 9,000 fatalities.1 The share of foodborne illness stemming from fresh fruits, vegetables and juices has increased dramatically over the last decade. This growth in foodborne illnesses can be traced to a number of factors: human behavior, industry, adoption of certain microbes and "the shift toward a global economy."2
Food Trade Increases Rates of U.S. Foodborne Illness
The increasingly globalized nature of the food supply is a major cause in the increase of U.S. foodborne illnesses. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention: "We now import 30 billion tons of food a year, including fruit, vegetables, seafoods, and canned goods; these imported foods are an increasing proportion of the diet, and often come from developing countries where food hygiene and basic sanitation are less advanced. "3 As Nicols Fox, author of a new book on the growing danger of foodborne illness, points out "our food is only as safe as the country and the environment it comes from....Trade is like a passport for pathogens," she said.4 Since 1990, foodborne outbreaks in the United States from imported food have included shigellosis from imported green onions, salmonella from imported cantaloupe and imported alfalfa seeds, cyclospora from imported raspberries and cholera from imported coconut milk.5
Guatemalan Raspberries: Public concern about the safety of imported food has also increased after several high profile outbreaks connected to imported produce. The large outbreaks of Cyclosporiasis in North America in 1996 and 1997 were attributed to the consumption of Guatemalan raspberries.6 The researchers of this outbreak concluded: "This outbreak is a reminder that our supply of fresh produce has become increasingly international and underscores the need to identify and investigate foodborne outbreaks promptly, to consider that a local cluster of cases could be part of widespread outbreak...."7
Mexican Strawberries Suspected in Hepatitis A Outbreak: More than 200 cases of the potentially-fatal Hepatitis A in Michigan in early 1997 were associated with frozen strawberries imported from Mexico.8 It remains unclear at what point the strawberries, which were Mexican-grown and U.S. processed, were contaminated. USDA had inspected the U.S. processing plant near the time the berries linked to the outbreak were processed and found the overall sanitation level acceptable.9
According to Mexican Minister of Health Jose Luis Flores Luna, "Food Safety is in the hands of people who desperately require training in basic food safety and sanitation practices."10 Mexico is a "country of great contrasts," according to professor Eduardo Fernandez Escartin with Mexico's University of Queretaro. "We have industries possessing facilities that process foods using the most modern technologies and performing with very good hygiene standards." However, the same products may also be produced "under primitive conditions which ignore even the most fundamental sanitary practices," he said.11
Imported strawberries from Mexico were found to have an 18.4% violation rate for illegal levels of pesticides in 1993.12 Since NAFTA, Mexican strawberry imports into the U.S. have more than doubled with imports of Mexican fresh and frozen strawberries up 58% under NAFTA.13
Irradiation Is Not the Solution: The food industry has begun promoting food irradiation as a possible solution to foodborne illness. Irradiation has limited benefits and significant downsides. Food irradiation does not combat viruses such as Hepatitis A or E. coli 0157.14 It can't be used on commodities like lettuce.15 The jury is still out on the safety of food irradiation for consumers.16 Irradiation does reduce vitamin
content of food. 17 Concerns have been raised about the dangers of building and maintaining irradiation plants using radioactive isotopes, as well as health risk to workers at such facilities.18 Irradiation also does not help the pesticide contamination problem.
Increased Food Trade Has Undermined U.S. Food Inspection
Close to $800 billion in goods are imported into the U.S. each year.19 Seasonally, up to 70% of selected fruit and vegetables consumed in this country come from developing countries.20
In 1996, the United States imported more than 355,000 metric tons of grapes, more than 56,000 metric tons of strawberries, more than 673,000 metric tons of melons, more than 730,000 metric tons of tomatoes, and 700,000 metric tons of beef and veal.21 As Larry Waterfield, Washington editor of The Packer, a trade publication for packers and shippers has noted, "How do you know if food is grown to the same standards it is here? It's impossible to tell." 22
Under NAFTA, U.S. imports of food and agricultural products from Mexico and Canada have increased by more than 40%.23 From Mexico, U.S. imports of fresh fruits have increased 35%, of vegetables 52%,24 and of fish and shellfish 64%.25 From Canada, imports of meats and livestock have increased 30%,26 field crops (mostly hay and alfalfa) 80%,27 and bakery products 46%.28
The massive increase in NAFTA imports has overwhelmed the federal agencies responsible for inspecting imported food. For example, at the Otay Mesa, Arizona, border crossing, 2,000 to 2,500 trucks travel from Mexico to the U.S. daily four to five times more than a decade ago. Other than spot checks and random "block busts" of 15 trucks at a time, most trucks pass through untouched.29 "It's just sporadic," said Joyce Henderson, customs director at Otay Mesa. "It's not container by container. We can't do it container by container all day long."30 "It's like dinner without reservations," said Sam Longanecker, supervisor of the local USDA. inspection unit.31
Border Food Inspection Fails to Keep Pace with Imports
A recent inter-agency report issued by the USDA, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) reveals that the number of food inspections has decreased radically since 1981. The report, Food Safety from Farm to Table: A New Strategy for the 21st Century, contains several alarming observations:
The FDA currently only inspects one or two percent of shipments of imported food.35 Of the imported food which it inspects each year, the FDA detains about 30,000 shipments annually at the port of entry because the goods appear to be unacceptable.36 The FDA often fails, however, to keep contaminated food from being consumed in the United States.37
Imported Food Is More Likely to Contain Illegal Levels of Pesticides Than Domestic Food
New Analysis of FDA Data Shows Imported Food Is More Than Three Times More Likely To Be Contaminated With Illegal Pesticides Than U.S. Grown Food
Public Citizen analyzed FDA pesticide inspection data for the two year period 1994-1995 (the most recent years for which data is available) and found imported food is more than three times more likely to be contaminated with illegal pesticides than U.S. grown food.38 Public Citizen's analysis of "compliance data" (products with a reputation for problems) found these imports to be 31% more likely to violate U.S. standards for illegal pesticide residues than domestic food.
The U.S. agrichemical industry is frequently responsible for the increased use in developing nations of pesticides and other chemicals. For example, in Culican, Mexico, "sometimes they'll spray tomatoes 25 times before they're picked," said Robert Paarlberg, professor of political science at Wellesley College and an expert on agriculture in developing countries. "The big distributors are down there now trying to convince Mexican supermarkets that these perfectly round, perfectly formed fruits are what their customers want. It's a big step backward as far as I'm concerned. People used to be happy to buy oranges that didn't all look alike."39
Past Analysis Shows Consistent Under-Reporting of Pesticide Violation Rates
The FDA data Public Citizen analyzed to compare domestic and imported produce pesticide violation rates has been found to under-report the true rate of pesticide violations. A 1995 Environmental Working Group (EWG) analysis found that the FDA had substantially underestimated the total number of samples containing illegal pesticide residues. The EWG's analysis of the FDA's own data showed that 826 of 14,923 samples contained an illegal level of pesticide residue (5.6%) compared to FDA's estimate of only 470 contaminated samples (3.1). 40
Imported Produce Comprise 85% of the Top Twenty Most Contaminated Crops
In a 1995 report, EWG also found that of the 20 most contaminated fruits and vegetables, seventeen were imported from outside the United States. Seven of the twenty were crops from Mexico: strawberries, head lettuce, pineapples, carrots, leaf lettuce, hot peppers and green beans. Three crops grown in the United States made the top twenty: green onions, pears and tomatoes.
The U.S. has greatly increased imports of most of these Mexican problem crops. Since NAFTA, imports of Mexican carrots have grown 175%, Mexican strawberries 58%, Mexican peppers 84%, Mexican beans 60% and Mexican melons 101%.41
Reduced Produce Inspection for Pesticides on Imported Food
Despite the fact that imported food is three times more likely to contain illegal pesticide residues than domestic food, FDA has substantially reduced the sampling of imported food. The absolute number of imported food samples inspections decreased from 6,463 in 1993 to 5,448 in 1994 to 5,032 in 1995 -- a decrease of 28% for the entire period.42 Also, during this period, import sample inspections decreased faster than inspections of food grown in the United States. In 1993, domestic samples were 88% of the import sample totaled, in 1994, this percentage grew to 98.5% and in 1995, the FDA actually inspected more samples of domestic food than imported food. At the same time, imported food has comprised an increasing share of the U.S. food supply.
Inspection of Mexican Produce Declines As Imports Rise
FDA data shows that although a number of Mexican crops were known to have high rates of illegal pesticide residues in the early 1990s,43 the number and rate of inspection of Mexican food has decreased. In 1993, FDA inspected 1,820 samples.44 By 1995, this had decreased to 1723.45
NAFTA Sets Limits on Member Countries' Imported Food Inspection
The NAFTA food provisions constrain domestic food safety and agricultural disease and pest inspections to ease trade flows. Unfortunately, both the actual reduction in rate of inspection and increased pressure under NAFTA's rules on border inspectors by importers and trade officials to speed up their examination of agricultural goods has resulted in less comprehensive food inspection. For instance, NAFTA specifically forbids imported food from being border inspected more thoroughly than the same domestic commodity. 46 Yet, imported foods are three times as likely as domestic grown foods to contain illegal residues of harmful pesticides
Meat and Poultry Import Inspection Weakened Under Trade "Equivalence" Rule
NAFTA provides for food safety standards from other countries to be declared "equivalent" to U.S. standards based on subjective comparisons.47 Once a foreign standard is declared to be "equivalent," it must be treated as if it were a U.S. domestic standard. 48 NAFTA's implementing legislation made substantive amendments to U.S. meat, poultry, and live animal inspection laws to permit imports from NAFTA countries that do not comply with U.S. food safety laws.49
A breach in the safety of meat imported from Canada occurred when the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), implementing the 1988 U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, declared "equivalent" to U.S. standards a weaker, more cursory Canadian meat inspection system. Canada, which has tougher inspection than many countries, inspects far fewer meat packing plants than the U.S.50 In fact, Canadian authorities failed to inspect an average of about 300 of 750 Canadian foreign meat processing plants certified for U.S. exports.51
After a declaration of "equivalence" under the U.S.-Canada Free Trade Agreement, regular inspection of Canadian meat imports were ended until a USDA inspector, William Lehman, blew the whistle with warnings of meat containing "pus filled abscesses, metal shavings, ...hair, ingesta, feces and obvious pathology,"52 coming over the U.S.-Canada border uninspected . Yet, NAFTA's implementing bill formally adopted the same practice for both NAFTA trade partners. The GAO noted in a follow up report after additional Canadian meat inspection was restarted that U.S. equivalence procedures fail to review chemicals approved and used in exporting countries, but banned in the U.S.53
Imported Meat Not Inspected for Hazardous Chemicals Used in the Exporting Country
Because USDA has deemed inspection in Canada and parts of Mexico to be "equivalent, FSIS only "reinspects" a small sample of imported meat and poultry to monitor the effectiveness of the exporting nation's residue testing. In 1996, the USDA had 74 import inspectors responsible for nearly 2.4 billion pounds annually of imported meat and poultry products in approximately 160 active import inspection locations.54 This translates to each inspector being covering more than 600,000 pounds of meat and poultry each every week. FSIS import testing does not include pesticides and drugs not approved for use or banned in
the U.S. but used by exporting nations. FSIS also doesn't inspect for heavy metal residues, even after reports of problems.55
Avalanche of Imports Impairs Ability of APHIS to Protect U.S. Agricultural Production Against Infestation and Disease
While increased imports have raised many issues about consumer safety, the new flood also raises devastating new pest and disease problems for America's farmers. Foreign pests and diseases cost an estimated $41 billion yearly in lost U.S. production, prevention and control.56 A May 1997 GAO report found that increasing pressure from the new flood of imports has undermined the ability of USDA to effectively operate its inspection program.57 The GAO found:
NAFTA Prioritizes Trade Over Safety: Harmonization & Equivalence
NAFTA requires or encourages the U.S., Canada and Mexico to harmonize their food standards including meat and produce contaminant standards, food inspection, pesticide standards and food labeling.61 NAFTA presumes that any domestic food safety standards providing greater health protection than the NAFTA-named international food standards of the industry-influenced Codex Alimentarius are illegal trade barriers. Maintenance of higher standards can result in trade sanctions. The threat of challenge provides powerful incentives for governments to harmonize standards or declare equivalence even when not legally required to under NAFTA.
In 1995, U.S. and foreign chemical and agribusiness companies protested an EPA plan to ban all products containing residues of a fungicide called Folpet, arguing that the U.S. is not allowed to have a food standard stronger than Codex's international standards. Over two years later, only those pesticide standards which industry did not oppose terminating were eliminated.62
NAFTA established numerous new committees and working groups to implement the harmonization mandate.63 Unfortunately, these committees and working groups do not provide an opportunity for input by interested individuals or potentially-affected communities and generally conduct their operations behind closed doors. Even the NAFTA committees that are more open are bound to implement the NAFTA harmonization rules to facilitate trade. For instance, the NAFTA Technical Working Group on Pesticides is unusual in making public its work plans and progress reports.64 However, what the reports reveal is establishment through the committee of additional pesticide tolerances allowing imports of food into each of the three NAFTA countries containing pesticide residues not previously permitted in the countries."65
1 U.S. GAO, "Food Safety: Information on Foodborne Illness," (RCED-96-96) at 5 (May 8, 1996).
2 S.F. Altekruse, M.L. Cohen, and D.L. Swerdlow of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "Emerging Foodborne Diseases," Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 3, Number 3, July-September, 1997, p 1.
3 "Food and Water Borne Bacterial Diseases," fact sheet prepared by the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, March 9, 1995.
4 Don Oldenburg, "In Our Food, Some Sickening Developments," Washington Post, August 27, 1997.
5 S.F. Altekruse, M.L. Cohen, and D.L. Swerdlow of the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, "Emerging Foodborne Diseases," Emerging Infectious Diseases, Vol. 3, Number 3, July-September, 1997, pp. 6-7.
6 Barbara L. Herwaldt, Marta-Louise Ackers and the Cyclospora Working Group, "An Outbreak in 1996 of Cyclosporiasis Associated With Imported Raspberries," The New England Journal of Medicine, May 29, 1997, p. 1548; "Is Imported Produce Safe to Eat," Washington Post, Health Section, July 8, 1997, p.13.
7 Id at 1555.
8 "Activities of the Food and Drug Administration Related to Hepatitis A Outbreak Associated with Consumption of Frozen Strawberries," fact sheet prepared by the Food and Drug Administration, April 16, 1997, p.4.
9 Testimony of Mary Ann Keefe, Acting Under Secretary of Food, Nutrition, and Consumer Services, U.S. Department of Agriculture before the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Youth and Families, Committee on Education and the Workforce, U.S. House of Representatives, April 17, 1997.
10 "`Vicious Circle' Stymies Mexican Food Safety Efforts," World Food Chemical News, April 3, 1996, p.8.
11 Id at 7.
12 Forbidden Fruit, The Environmental Working Group, 1995, 2:6.
13 Economic Research Service Report, USDA, "Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States," (June 1997).
14 "Is Imported Produce Safe to Eat," Washington Post, Health Section, July 8, 1997 p.13
16 Donald B. Louria,, "Zapping the Food Supply," Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists, May, 1990.
18 "Zapping Contamination Is Not the Answer," fact sheet, Food and Water, Inc.
19 U.S. International Trade Commission, International Trade Commission Data, from "The Impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the U.S. Economy and Industries: A Three-Year Review," at 3-14, (June 1997).
20 Dr. Michael T. Osterholm, "Cyclosporiasis and RaspberriesLessons for the Future," New England Journal of Medicine, May 29, 1997, p. 1597.
21 Economic Research Service Report, USDA, "Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States," at 363-364, (June 1997).
22 "There's Chaos on the Border: Fruit, TV Sets, Drugs Enter U.S. from Mexico Unchecked, An Unwanted Result of NAFTA Treaty," Akron Beacon Journal, May 4, 1997.
23 U.S. International Trade Commission, International Trade Commission Data, from "The Impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement on the U.S. Economy and Industries: A Three-Year Review," at 6-15 (June 1997).
24 U.S. Bureau of Census, Trade Data, Analyzed by Commodity and Marketing Programs, Foreign Agricultural Service, USDA.
25 U.S. International Trade Commission, op cit at 6-78.
26 Id at 6-75.
27 Id at 6-61.
28 Id at 6-91.
29 "There's Chaos on the Border: Fruit, TV Sets, Drugs Enter U.S. from Mexico Unchecked, An Unwanted Result of NAFTA Treaty," Akron Beacon Journal, May 4, 1997.
32 Department of Agriculture, the Department of Health and Human Services and the Environmental Protection Agency, "Food Safety from Farm to Table: A New Strategy for the 21st Century," at 18 (February, 1997).
33 Id at 18.
35 Sandra G. Bloom, "Is Imported Produce Safe to Eat," Washington Post Health Section, July 8, 1997, p.12.
36 "The Food and Drug Administration: An Overview," fact sheet, U.S. FDA, October 15, 1995.
37 U.S. General Accounting Office, "Pesticides: Adulterated Imported Foods Are Reaching U.S. Grocery Shelves," (GAO/RCED-92-205), at 9 (September 1992).
38 FDA numbers likely understate incidents of pesticide violations, but the under-reporting is unlikely to distort the relative number of import violations compared to domestic food.
39 Esther Schrader, "A Giant Spraying Sound," Mother Jones, January, 1995.
40 Forbidden Fruit, The Environmental Working Group, 1995, at 2:1.
41 Economic Research Service Report, USDA, "Foreign Agricultural Trade of the United States," (June 1997).
42 "Residue Monitoring-1993," Food and Drug Administration, October 1994, p.5; "Residue Monitoring-1994," Food and Drug Administration, October 1995, p. 9; "Pesticide Program Residue Monitoring 1995," Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, October 1996, p. 7.
43 Forbidden Fruit, The Environmental Working Group, 1995, at 2:7.
44 "Residue Monitoring-1993," Food and Drug Administration, October 1994, p.5.
45 "Pesticide Program Residue Monitoring 1995," Center for Food Safety and Applied Nutrition, Food and Drug Administration, October 1996, p. 7.
46 NAFTA Sanitary and Phytosanitary Agreement (NAFTA SPS Agreement), Article 717(1)(a)."Each Party, with respect to any control or inspection procure that it conducts shall initiate and complete the procedure...in no less favorable manner for a good of another party than for a like good of the Party."
47 NAFTA SPS Agreement, Article 714.
48 NAFTA SPS Agreement, Article 714(2)(a).
49 See e.g. NAFTA Implementation Act (Dec. 8, 1993), Pub. L. No. 103-182, 361(b), (c), 361(f) amending 21 U.S.C. 361(f).
50 U.S. General Accounting Office, "U.S.-Canadian Food safety: Opportunities for Sharing Information and Coordinating Inspections," (RCED-95-45) at 10, (November 22, 1997).
51 Id at 7.
52 Affidavit of William Lehman, p. 2. (On file at Public Citizen.)
53 U.S. General Accounting Office, (GAO 94-192), Chapter 5: Section 3-2.
54 Testimony of Thomas J. Billy, Administrator, Food Safety Inspection Service, before the Subcommittee on agriculture, Rural Development, Food and Drug Administration and Related Agencies, March 12, 1997.
55 U.S. GAO, "Food Safety: Changes Needed to Minimize Unsafe Chemicals in Food," (RCED-94-192) at 27 (September 26, 1994).
56 U.S. GAO, "Agricultural Inspection: Improvements Needed to Minimize Threat of Foreign Pests and Diseases," (RCED-97-102) at 1 (May 1997).
57 Id at 7.
58 U.S. General Accounting Office, "Agricultural Inspection: Improvements Needed to Minimize Threat of Foreign Pests and Diseases," (GAO/RCED-97-102) at 8 (May 1997).
61 See e.g. NAFTA SPS Agreement, Article 713. NAFTA also contains provisions on harmonization of U.S. Mexican and Canadian standards on truck safety, occupational safety, toxic hazards, and pharmaceutical testing, among other issues.
62 Fed. Reg. July 17, 1996 (Vol. 61, No. 138) pgs. 3721837222.
63 See e.g. NAFTA Article 722 (Establishing the Committee on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards).
64 See e.g. NAFTA TWG, Pesticides, Progress Report, January 1997, available through U.S. EPA Office of Pesticide Programs.
65 Office of Pesticide Programs, U.S. EPA, "Executive Summary, NAFTA TWG Progress Report," August 25, 1995, page 2. (Available at www.epa.gov/opppsps /nafta/cutsa/execsum.htm.) ("In cooperation with commodity groups and industry, Canada and the U.S. have identified trade disruptions caused by differences in import tolerance/MRLs between the two countries...." The report lists new import tolerances established to allow trade in food containing pesticides that would have otherwise been forbidden.)
Chris McGinn, Lori Wallach, Robert Naiman, Laura Grund, Michael Dolan, Katie Burnham and Lucinda Sikes greatly contributed to the writing of this report. Special thanks to Auke Piersma, Jake Caldwell, Steve Stupan, Margrete Strand-Rangnes, Bruce Silverglade, Richard Giragosian, Anjum Kapoor, Frederick Mertz, Robert Weissman, and Jason Stele.
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Other titles by Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch
Trading Away U.S. Food Safety (1993)
NAFTA's Broken Promises: Job Creation (1995)
NAFTA's Broken Promises: The Border Betrayed (1996)
NAFTA's Broken Promises: The Environment and Public Health (1997)
NAFTA's Broken Promises: Failure to Create U.S. Jobs (1997)