University of Oregon
President Wants to Tighten Rules on Imported Produce
By JAMES BENNET
October 3, 1997
WASHINGTON -- Acting after several outbreaks of disease linked to the
burgeoning global trade in produce, President Clinton announced
Thursday that he would ask Congress to require federal regulators
to ban imports of fruit and vegetables from countries that do not
meet American food safety standards.
The move, urged by regulators since shortly after Clinton first
took office and welcomed Thursday by industry and consumer groups,
would empower the Food and Drug Administration to safeguard foreign
fruit and vegetables in much the same way that other federal
regulators check meat and poultry from overseas.
Clinton said that he would ask for more money from Congress next
year for the FDA to hire investigators to inspect not just produce,
but also foreign farming methods and government safety systems. In
a change that might irk some U.S. trading partners, countries that
blocked the new FDA inspections would be forbidden to sell fruit
and vegetables in the United States, the administration said.
"At the time when Americans are eating more and more food from
around the globe, we must spare no effort to insure the safety of
our food supply from whatever source," Clinton said at a Rose
Garden ceremony to announce his proposals Thursday. "Our food
safety system is the strongest in the world, and that's how it's
going to stay."
Imports of produce have increased sharply in recent years, to 38
percent of the fruit consumed by Americans and 12 percent of the
vegetables. With those imports, however, have come recent outbreaks
of diseases brought across borders by Guatemalan raspberries,
Mexican cantaloupes and Thai coconut milk, causing public alarm
that might make Congress sympathetic to Clinton's proposals. But
American trading partners may eventually choose to protest any ban
on their products to the World Trade Organization, much as the
United States on Wednesday said it would file a complaint with that
organization protesting Japan's stringent test for pesticides on
American nectarines, cherries and other fruit. The United States
sells twice as much food abroad as it imports.
Donna E. Shalala, the secretary of health and human services,
said that Clinton would ask for $24 million annually to support the
FDA's new international inspections. Another official said that if
Congress acts on Clinton's proposal, the FDA would phase in its
system for such inspections over the next several years.
Thursday, Clinton also directed Shalala and the secretary of
agriculture, Dan Glickman, to develop new, voluntary standards
within a year for growing, processing, shipping and selling fruit
and vegetables. The president said he also expected a report from
them within 90 days on how to improve the monitoring of fruit and
vegetables grown abroad.
Though they backed the president's proposal, consumer and
industry groups said that they were anxious about the details in
the legislation, which the administration plans to offer next year.
"What the president proposed today addresses many of the
gaps," said Caroline Smith DeWaal, director of food safety for the
Center for Science in the Public Interest. But, she added, "I
would like to have mandatory standards rather than voluntary
guidelines" for food manufacturers and handlers. For their part,
White House aides predicted that meeting the voluntary guidelines
would become an eye-catching industry selling point.
A senior White House official, who spoke on the condition of
anonymity, said that it was hard to predict whether the president's
initiative could raise prices of fruit and vegetables. But
producers or sellers may have to pass on the costs of any
modifications to consumers, he said.
The main initiative announced Thursday -- requiring the FDA to
bar foods imported from countries with substandard safety systems --
was recommended more than four years ago by David A. Kessler, then
the commissioner of food and drugs. Kessler warned then that the
nation's food-safety laws, essentially unchanged since 1938, were
in "urgent need" of an overhaul.
Contaminated food, he noted, kills an estimated 9,000 Americans
a year and sickens millions, perhaps tens of millions. It still
does. The food-safety system was marked by "enormous
inefficiencies," he warned. It still is, according to a federal
report published in May.
The White House has already moved to institute one of Kessler's
central proposals, a scientific system for controlling the risk of
disease borne by seafood, meat and poultry. But no such system yet
exists for fruit and vegetables, domestic or imported.
The White House said Thursday that Clinton has been adopting
Kessler's proposals piecemeal, addressing the most urgent needs
first. Michael D. McCurry, the White House press secretary, said
that Clinton was prompted to tighten monitoring of fruit and
vegetables partly by several outbreaks of illness and reporting on
the potential hazards by news organizations, including The New York
Clinton's move on food safety comes as he is seeking enhanced
fast-track authority from Congress to negotiate trade deals. His
opponents have charged that such deals lower barriers to food-borne
Some opponents of granting the president fast-track authority --
a set of rules under which trade deals, once negotiated, would have
to be voted on quickly and without amendment by Congress -- hailed
Clinton's announcement Thursday. "I'm glad the fast-track debate
has energized the president to do this," said Rep. Sherrod Brown,
D-Ohio. Brown and 85 other members recently sent Clinton a letter
linking food safety and trade pacts.
The White House said Clinton did not connect food safety to
promoting his trade goals. The senior administration official said
that he expected some members of Congress to use the initiative as
political cover for voting to give the president greater trade
Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., who is chairman of the Agriculture
Committee, will hold hearings on the initiative next week.
The administration consulted with some foreign governments
before Thursday's announcement, one administration official said,
but still expects criticism from abroad. "There will be some
negative reaction in some places, but it won't be the end of the
world," he said.
Some foreign representatives here worried that Clinton's
proposals might be used to create trade barriers. The safety of
imported food is "a serious issue coming very fast towards all of
us in this new global world," said Ambassador John Biehl of Chile.
He called the president's initiative "a good thing as long as it
is equal for everyone" and not "used as an artificial barrier to
Administration officials repeatedly said Thursday that there was
no evidence that imported fruit and vegetables are less safe than
American ones. But there is little data about the relative safety
of domestic versus imported food, according to the Centers for
Disease Control and Prevention, in Atlanta. One percent or less of
the actual number of food-borne illnesses are reported, analyzed,
identified and successfully traced.
While the Department of Agriculture monitors meat and poultry,
produced here or abroad, the FDA is charged with safeguarding all
other food, including fruit, vegetables, grains and seafood. But,
unlike the Agriculture Department, the FDA can now send its
investigators abroad only if they are invited, and agency
inspections of the imports have dropped to less than half what they
were five years ago. If Congress approves the president's proposal,
the FDA is expected to hire 100 more investigators, who will
examine foreign farming methods and food safety systems.
Copyright 1997 The New York Times Company
To Unsubscribe: Email firstname.lastname@example.org with "unsubscribe sanet-mg".
To Subscribe to Digest: Email email@example.com with the command