FDA Food Safety Modernization Act Might Raise Trade Concerns?

By Ching-Fu Lin

At the World Trade Organization (WTO) committee dealing with food safety and other issues under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures (SPS Agreement) held approximately three weeks ago, China raised several trade concerns about the Food Safety Modernization Act (FSMA).  Other WTO members, such as Brazil, Belize, and Korea, supported China’s concerns.  One of the major points of contention was the FSMA’s import certification requirements and whether its outsourced third-party auditors will conduct food safety inspections in a manner consistent with the SPS Agreement.

Before we dig into the trade implications of the FSMA, two important questions must first be answered.  What are the FSMA import food safety requirements?  And what is the underlying rationale for such requirements?

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Taking China’s Food Safety Problem Seriously (II)

By Ching-Fu Lin

[See Part I here.]

In response to the melamine-tainted milk scandal in 2008, China replaced its outdated Food Hygiene Act with the Food Safety Law, which came into effect in 2009.  The 2009 Food Safety Law includes provisions on risk assessment methods, establishment of a food safety committee, mandatory product recall requirements, and unification of food safety standards.  However, this legal reform has left many key areas of the regulatory framework intact—such as industry compliance and law enforcement.

First, the crucial problem of overlapping competencies among responsible authorities is not addressed in the 2009 Food Safety Law.  Although the Ministry of Health (MOH) is mandated to take the lead on food safety regulation, the current state is flawed as multiple agencies are only organized in a loosely coordinated system.  For example, the State Food and Drug Administration (SFDA), the Ministry of Agriculture (MOA), the State General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ), and the Ministry of Commerce (MOC) all take part in the regulation of the entire food supply chain.  The result is a fragmented regulatory environment, which creates blind areas for agencies to push responsibility away, and therefore, perpetuate rather than alleviate loopholes in routine control.  Thus, timely response and cooperation is difficult.

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Taking China’s Food Safety Problem Seriously (I)

By Ching-Fu Lin

Why should we be concerned about China’s food safety problem?  A recent opinion by Adam Minter on Bloomberg offers yet another tough criticism on China’s food system: “For more than a decade, China has earned a reputation as one of the world’s worst food-safety offenders.”  Melamine-tainted milk, rat meat sold as lambrecycled “gutter oil” for cooking, and most recently, juice made from rotten fruit, Chinese food producers never cease to surprise us with their “creativity” in economic adulteration.  The Chinese government, however, has failed to establish an effective regulatory system beyond executing violators and political campaigns.  The Chinese consumers continue to react with desperation to these endless food safety crises, smuggling bunks of infant formula from Hong Kong and other countries.

But why should we care?

According to testimony before a subcommittee of the House Foreign Affairs Committee in May, food products of Chinese origin have dominated the U.S. food market in areas such as tilapia (77.5%), apple juice (65.2%), cod (52.7%), processed mushrooms (34.1%), garlic (27.4%), clams (16.1%), frozen spinach (16.0%), and salmon (12.7%).  The Chinese food imports are also expected to increase by about 10% annually until 2020.  Faced with the huge volumes of foods imported into the US every year, the Food and Drug Administration has only been able to inspect about 2.3% of the total imports from China in 2011 (which is, well, an improvement compared to 1.3% in 2007). Moreover, the U.S. Department of Agriculture announced last month that China’s poultry processing inspection system is equivalent to its US counterpart.  That is, processed chicken from China is determined as meeting US food safety standards (even if there are no on-site USDA inspectors in the processing facilities) and granted it access to the US market.

In an interdependent world trading system, regulatory failure in one country can spill over to many others, resulting in adverse public health repercussions in the latter country.  We should take China’s food safety problem seriously.

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Foodborne illness and the government shutdown

By Nicholson Price

This story is still developing, so this post will just be a quick pointer.  You may have seen news stories about how FDA isn’t inspecting foods, and 90% of seafood isn’t getting inspected.  And these are all worries about problems that we think might happen.

Well, the problems have started.  Salmonella-contaminated chicken has sickened 278 people across 18 states.  The USDA’s Food Safety and Inspection Service (FSIS) is still operating as an excepted activity (pdf link, see page 2), and has announced the outbreak but the CDC may be unable to do interstate surveillance of the outbreak (exactly what CDC is able to do during the shutdown is a bit unclear).  And FSIS only covers meat, poultry, and eggs.  FDA, which inspects most other foods, won’t be doing so as long as the government is shut down.

And for folks who happen to go to the USDA site looking for answers (as opposed to linking right to the FSIS), they’ll get this message: “Due to the lapse in federal government funding, this website is not available.”

“Mountain Dew Mouth:” A Critical Opportunity for Public Health Law

By Scott Burris

Last week, the American Journal of Public Health published a PHLR paper by Michelle Mello and colleagues calling for our field to identfy “critical opportunities” for public health law. Critical Opportunities are legal interventions that target important public health problems.  They may have a strong evidence base but be underutilized (like alcohol taxes that keep up with inflation). They may be ideas that appear to be working in practice, and have a plausible mechanism of effect, even if our evidence base still consists of early studies or reports from practice (like distributing naloxone to opioid users and their friends to reduce overdose death). And they may be innovations that are plausible because of how they appear to relate to the problem or because they are similar in mechanism to other legal interventions that have been proven to work (like restricting sales of single cigars).  The bottom line is that we can do a better job spreading the word about legal interventions that work and that policy makers and the public can get behind in states and localities around the country.

The Robert Wood Johnson Foundation has helped get the idea moving by supporting a series of videos in which public health lawyers, practitioners and researchers pitch their ideas for critical opportunities.  These are often done, like a Ted Talk, at meetings, and one of the audience favorites is Dana Singer’s pitch for action to deal with “Mountain Dew Mouth,” a term gaining in traction to name the devastating consequences of heavy consumption of sugary beverages, especially those with critic acid.  The issue is on the federal agenda as part of the debate about food stamps.  It’s a hard one: public health people see the terrible consequences of these products and think that ending the federal “subsidy” for them might reduce harm; SNAP advocates don’t like the idea of anyone telling poor people what to eat and drink; industry, well, you can guess. State and local beverage taxes are another option, and we know that taxes can reduce consumption of even addictive products.

NPR has a story on the problem and some of the solutions this week.  I’m glad to see more attention to this problem, because poor dental health can send anyone’s life on a harder course, and is a very big problem in Appalachia. If you don’t believe me, or even NPR, read Priscilla Harris’s paper and watch Dana’s critical ops video.

Food Safety Regulatory Cooperation in the US-EU Free Trade Pact

By Ching-Fu Lin

In a congressional letter last month, 76 House Members urged United States (US) Trade Representative Michael Froman to push for strong and enforceable sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures in the proposed Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP).  SPS measures – which have been viewed as an area with very little room for convergence between the two sides – cover animal health, plant health, and food safety law and regulation.  The differences are evidenced by previous politically salient disputes over hormone-treated beef, genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and more recently, ractopamine in pork.  Indeed, given the cultural and institutional divergences between the US and the European Union (EU) food safety regulatory systems, many doubt the possibility that TTIP can come up with an SPS chapter (or an SPS-Plus chapter) that strikes a proper balance between public health and international trade.

As noted by some commentators, given the relatively low tariffs between the EU and US, the chief focus will center upon reducing non-tariff barriers to trade in numerous sectors, including agricultural products, biotechnology, and food safety regulation.  The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has also established a special public health and trade team within its Office of International Programs to take a more active role in the negotiation.  Yet the negotiation over such a “sensitive” area has been considered unpromising—transatlantic deadlock, cooperation failure, and several deal breakers (especially regarding GMOs)—because the differences in food safety regulation between the US and EU seem not only significant but also persistent.

However, the outlook may not be as pessimistic as the common understanding.

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