Testimony of Lori Wallach: Hearing on Protecting Public Health in a Global Economy

For the Subcommittee on Agriculture, Rural Development and FDA House Appropriations Committee

Posted: 7/28/2009

On behalf of Public Citizen’s 100,000 members, I want to thank the Chairwoman and members of the subcommittee for the opportunity to discuss the problem of ensuring consumer safety in the context of Americans’ food supply increasing coming from countries around the world without strong domestic food safety systems. Public Citizen is a nonprofit research, lobbying and litigation group based in Washington, D.C. Founded in 1971, Public Citizen accepts no government or corporate funds. The mission of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch division is to ensure that in this era of globalization, a majority have the opportunity to enjoy America's promises: economic security; a clean environment; safe food, medicines and products; access to quality affordable services such as health care; and the exercise of democratic decision-making about the matters that affect their lives. Global Trade Watch monitors the outcomes of the current globalization model and its implementing mechanisms, including the World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) with respect to their effect democracy, economic and social justice, public health and safety, and a healthy environment.

At issue with today’s increasingly globalized food supply are critical public health and safety issues. However, because of the inappropriate invasion of domestic food safety and public health regulatory space by ‘trade’ agreements, perversely much of my testimony today will focus on trade agreement policy.

Indeed, the rapid growth in imported food, the current trade pact rules prioritizing expansion of food trade volumes by limiting countries’ food safety policies, and the way that some U.S. agencies have applied these trade rules means that U.S. consumers are increasingly being forced to rely on foreign governments to regulate the safety of foods sold and consumed here. Unfortunately, our recent experience has highlighted that many foreign regulatory systems are simply not up to the task. Thus, relying on foreign governments and their food safety systems to protect Americans’ health is a recipe for disaster – and must be changed.

In this testimony, I will focus on six key issues:

  • An increasing share of Americans’ food is being grown and/or processed in other countries.
  • This shift has occurred following U.S. entry into agreements such as WTO and NAFTA that contain trade, investment and safety deregulation and standardization requirements designed to expand the volume of agricultural trade. These pacts prioritize expanding trade volumes over the goal of consumer safety and contain rules to constrain signatory countries’ food safety requirements.
  • One particularly dangerous trade agreement limitation on food safety involves obligations related to “equivalence” – the requirement that countries may no longer require imported food to actually meet their domestic standards.
  • Americans expect the food they eat meets U.S. safety standards. This is not the case with respect to some imported meat and poultry under current U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) equivalence policy.
  • USDA has found equivalence and sought to force U.S. consumers to rely on the food safety systems of countries known for widespread and deadly safety failures.
  • Changes are needed to the relevant U.S. laws and regulations implementing trade pact food safety-related policies, notably including meat and poultry equivalence policy.

Read the full testimony here (PDF).