It isn’t just horse meat in Europe or baby formula in China. You encounter food fraud in nearly every country in the world. China may be the worst exemplar, but there seems to be a worldwide attitude that if you can get away with adding inexpensive ingredients, you should do so, even if it is dangerous to human health. After all, you don’t even know your victims, so why should you care? Take the easy money and don’t worry about some baby thousands of miles away. Here’s a particularly egregious example of the attitude from wheat farmers in China.Thankfully, some of us do worry. And it may surprise you that the World Trade Organization and its members are among them, though they don’t make the headlines because – to reporters and editors – it looks like boring meetings. And those meetings often concern how to cope with the sudden Draconian safety measures that governments put in a place when their public panics. The media doesn’t want solutions, only new atrocities.
The WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Measures Committee – it’s hard to sound more boring than that – met a couple weeks back and dug into issues that daily impact what we eat and use: materials added to plastics in food and drink containers; fruits; pine and other conifer trees; seed potatoes; shrimp; tequila; pesticides; salmon; “novel foods”; import restrictions caused by port closures; sesame; edible offals; residues of veterinary medicine; and seeds treated with substances that could endanger bees. You can see the breadth of the work. Let’s get into some of the depth.
Everybody is reacting to food safety issues – and some of those reactions are positive. The SPS Committee heard reports about the WTO’s training program for officials of developing countries and “formerly centrally planned” governments about food safety and sanitary trade practices. In 18 years, the WTO has run 10,522 officials through 268 courses. Over time, the training has an impact, as evidenced by a pending World Bank report that worries about developing country exports that may be hurt by higher sanitary and phytosanitary requirements in other developing countries. Even countries far down the economic development ladder are reacting to food safety issues. And that’s usually a good thing, unless health and safety is used simply as an excuse to keep imports out.
The horse meat scandals in Europe were on everybody’s minds. (Horse meat may have been on their stomachs, too, as it is considered normal food, easily found on menus, in much of Switzerland. Fancy a horse fondue?) Rather than the horror-stricken news reports we saw, mostly interviews with worried shoppers in grocery stores, European officials stressed that this was labeling fraud – not a food safety issue. They explained how the fraud came to light, actions taken to prevent similar future frauds, and emphasized that speedy action once the fraud was known showed that a robust food safety system can move quickly and across borders. The focus was on the best practices that came out of the experience.
Japan told the world “not to worry” about radioactive food products that were zapped during the Fukushima disaster. They assured us that radiation levels in food and other Japanese products have returned to well below normal international standards. Their complaint was that a number of countries are still enforcing “temporary” safety restrictions against Japanese exports. Seems that such restrictions always go up quickly – and come down very slowly.
Brazil reported a single case last year of mad cow disease. They are still puzzling where the infection came from, saying it appears to be spontaneous. The cow was rapidly isolated and there were no other cases in the herd. The world is so spooked by mad cow that other countries immediately banned imports of cows or beef products from Brazil. Brazil is asking them to, please, relent.
China raised concerns that Indonesia had closed the port of Jakarta to imports of fruits and vegetables. The Chinese said that Indonesia had added more import licensing requirements for horticultural products and is now requiring inspection and certification by a private company at the port of export. No surprise if Indonesia is nervous about food from China, but the Chinese were joined in their complaints by South Korea, the European Union, Chile, Argentina, Taiwan and Uruguay. Indonesia responded that they had closed Jakarta because the port did not have adequate inspection and quarantine facilities to handle the volume – and pointed out that three other Indonesian ports are available for this trade. They didn’t really address the other restrictions except to tell the world: call us if you have a problem.
Paraguay, supported by Mexico, India, Argentina, Indonesia and Ecuador, bore down on Japan‘s new pesticide standards for sesame, arguing that they are not science-based and require pesticide residue levels far below international norms. Japan replied that it is waiting for scientific reporting from exporting countries before reconsidering its standard. Paraguay tartly responded that it is up to Japan to do the science if they want the restriction. India muttered something about Japan’s arbitrary standards decisions. Are they truly protecting health and safety … or something else?
This gives you a flavor for the SPS Committee’s work. Pragmatic, but there can be a few sparks of heat and venom to keep everybody awake. Some of the other issues taken up:
China’s import conditions related to phthalates
France’s ban on bisphenol a (BPA)
India’s import restrictions on apples, pears and citrus
Turkey’s requirements for importation of sheep meat
Brazil’s measures on shrimp
China’s standard for distilled spirits and alcoholic beverages
EU maximum residue levels of pesticides
China’s quarantine and testing procedures for salmon
EU regulation on novel foods
Viet Nam’s ban on offals
Japan’s restrictions on shrimp due to anti-oxidant residues
Costa Rica rules on veterinary drug residues in meat and meat products
EU rules on plant protection products and treated seeds containing clothianidin, thiamethoxam and imidacloprid
SPRING BREAK! Posts may be intermittent for a while. I’ve discovered that it is hard to type, or even think, when nearly 3-year-old grand twins are climbing on you.