More and more people are worried about the safety of food coming from China, but what exactly does "safety" mean, anyway? It's no simple question, given that safety standards frequently vary from country to country and for many reasons.
Compounding the problem, "safety standards" aren't always about safety. Standards can become a back door to protectionism. The phenomenon even has a name: technical trade barriers.
Everyone plays this game. The European Union enforces safety regulations that lack support in international science. Its standards on hormones prevent the import of U.S. beef, and rules on naturally occurring aflatoxin mold block all imports of corn and nut products from Africa.
China enforces a zero-tolerance rule on salmonella and the feed-additive ractopamine in meat and animal-feed imports, although the U.S. and EU allow trace amounts, without any accompanying health problems. The U.S. blocked importation of Chinese Ya pears for two years (in 2005 and 2006) based on an alleged fungus that no scientist outside the USDA could ever identify.
It doesn't need to be that way. Despite some safety or sanitary problems with Chinese exports, it's far better to settle these issues through technical discussions on standards rather than through political sparring. Ideally, the end result will be that both countries have the same technical standards for quality and food safety, which will mean products of the same high quality could be sold to consumers in both countries.
The alternative is a climate in which no one can be sure whether import bans are related to genuine safety concerns or to politics. My own company, Tyson Foods, and others recently saw some of our processing plants banned from importing into China due to the presence of traces of salmonella that wouldn't survive proper cooking. The products would have been acceptable at most other borders. The move followed what was effectively a U.S. ban on imports of several seafood types that may have resulted either from political pressure or concern over trace amounts of antibiotics.
More than one year ago, there were some encouraging signs on this topic. The Joint Commission on Commerce and Trade agreed to discuss technical trade barriers. The JCCT is a forum for high-level dialogue on bilateral trade issues between the U.S. and China, and it's co-chaired by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce and China's Minister of Commerce.
In their 2006 meeting, both countries agreed to start developing mutually accepted standards to avert disputes over safety regulations. The USDA and China's Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine (AQSIQ) even signed a memorandum of understanding on this principle.
Then silence. A dialogue on the issue never materialized. Until, that is, today.
Even as the U.S. FDA has effectively banned certain types of Chinese seafood and the Chinese have blocked certain meat imports from the U.S., the two sides are finally sitting down together to start discussing standards. Real negotiations about technical food safety and sanitary standards are happening this month in both Beijing and Washington, between the FDA and USDA and AQSIQ.
Last week, China's State Food and Drug Administration agreed with the U.S. FDA to increase technical exchanges through seminars and training programs, a process that will certainly increase the technical and scientific skills of Chinese regulators.
As these talks progress, China and the U.S. could turn to world health authorities, who stand a better chance of operating above the fray of national politics. The World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) and the Codex Alimentarius, which literally means the food code, of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, provide a base from which to start. Both organizations have standards and guidelines that a member country can adopt, protecting both the health of consumers and fair trade practices.
There is certainly a role for national safety regulators, who can sometimes act more nimbly than a global institution to protect consumers from newly discovered safety threats. To name one example from the pharmaceuticals sphere, U.S. regulators never approved thalidomide for widespread use despite its acceptance elsewhere. But distinguishing between prudence and protectionism requires constant vigilance.
Tyson Foods Inc. and our industry peers have long sought a set of equal standards for trade of our products between China and the U.S. Only the recent food safety issues inside China and the U.S. have brought both governments back into a discussion. Agreements on scientific quality standards for food will facilitate the trade of food products between producers and consumers and will have the added advantage of bringing universally accepted food standards, and safe food, to all individual consumers, everywhere.
James Rice is a vice president and China country manager for Tyson Foods Inc., as well as a member of Food Processing's Editorial Advisory Board.
This article is reprinted from The Wall Street Journal — ©2007 Dow Jones & Co. All rights reserved.