Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Does the TPP allow exporting countries to certify their own food safety equivalence?

by Parke Wilde and Yue Huang

The U.S. Trade Representative this fall released the text of the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a controversial trade agreement for the United States and other countries that border the Pacific Ocean.

Critics argue that the TPP will endanger U.S. food safety, but we wanted to read the text ourselves to see if this concern is justified.

If you are basically a food trade skeptic -- who thinks that farmers in poorer countries have no business seeking access to our markets, that U.S. consumers gain no benefit from food imports, and that U.S. farmers have no need for food export markets -- then no analysis of the food safety provisions will persuade you to like the TPP.

On the other hand, if you are basically open to food trade, and yet concerned that any such trade must be safe, then bear with us as we look into one central controversy: equivalence. The TPP has provisions to allow an importing country (such as the United States) to certify that the food safety oversight in an exporting country (such as Vietnam) is "equivalent" to our own.

The Center for Food Safety, a non-profit public interest organization opposed to the TPP, says the agreement allows the exporting country to claim to be equivalent, even if it violates U.S. food safety rules. The Center makes no mention of any power of the importing company to deny equivalance:
TPP would require the U.S to allow food imports from other countries if the exporting country claims that their safety regime is "equivalent" to our own – even if it violates key principles of our food safety laws. So, fish from Vietnam and other TPP countries using antibiotics and other drugs banned in the U.S. would have to be allowed under the agreement.
In fact, the TPP's chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures says just the opposite. The TPP allows the importing country to decide whether the exporter's food safety rules are equivalent. The importing country may refuse to designate equivalence if the exporter violates key principles of our food safety laws.

The TPP does place some requirements on the importing country that makes this decision. Let us read three of the most central requirements closely. We recognize that these requirements are substantial, but they also illustrate how seriously the TPP takes the importer's power to make this decision.

First, the importing country has to begin assessing equivalence within a reasonable amount of time.
When an importing Party receives a request for an equivalence assessment and determines that the information provided by the exporting Party is sufficient, it shall initiate the equivalence assessment within a reasonable period of time.
Second, the importing country shall accept an exporter's food safety rules if they achieve the same goal as the importer's food safety rules, that is ... 
if the exporting Party objectively demonstrates to the importing Party that the exporting Party’s measure: (a) achieves the same level of protection as the importing Party’s measure; or (b) has the same effect in achieving the objective as the importing Party’s measure.
Third, if the importing country decides against certifying equivalence, it should tell the exporting country the reason.
If an equivalence determination does not result in recognition by the importing Party, the importing Party shall provide the exporting Party with the rationale for its decision.
For an agreement designed to increase trade, these seem like reasonable provisions. Currently, U.S. food safety depends heavily on import inspections, which touch only a tiny percentage of food imports. Our food will be safer if our food safety authorities seek to ensure the equivalence of food safety oversight at the actual source in the exporting country.

In our reading, the TPP text contradicts critics who say that the exporter gets to claim equivalence even if it violates U.S. food safety rules such as bans on certain antibiotics and drugs. If we missed an important passage, please let us know.

It is great to have access to some food that is local, some food that comes from other parts of the United States, and -- so long as it is safe -- some food that comes from farmers overseas. For this purpose, the food safety chapter of the TPP strikes a reasonable balance.

This post was the topic of Yue Huang's term paper in Determinants of U.S. Food Policy (NUTR 303), at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts University.


Barbara Patterson said...

There's also a rules of origin issue here at play. The exporting country may be able to gain equivalence on food safety issues, but there is little in TPP to prevent the countries from serving as pass-throughs for other countries that may not share such equivalence.

Additionally, there's a good reason from the farm-level perspective to be skeptical about food trade. U.S. farmers, of course, look for greater export opportunities. increasingly, these export opportunities come at the expense of imports that undercut secondary market prices for ag products. For instance, we end up exporting the highest cuts of beef and importing greater amounts of trimmings, which undermines the stability of the market for U.S. farmers.

Parke Wilde said...

Thanks for this comment!

I now will pay special attention to see how the import/re-export issue gets discussed in Congress.

Clearly many people from a farm-level perspective are skeptical about trade. And yet, as you say, many U.S. farmers also do look for greater export opportunities, including to countries that border the Pacific.

Barbara Patterson said...

By the way, awesome topic for a term paper! Nice work, Yue Huang!

Yue Huang said...

Thanks Barbara!