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Food Safety: A Key to Harmonization of Trade in the Americas

Ann M. Veneman
Agriculture Secretary
 Keynote address to the Pan American Health Organization Ministerial
April 24, 2003
Washington, D.C.

Good morning and thank you very much for the opportunity to be here today. It is truly an honor to share the platform with so many distinguished guests and particularly President Batlle of Uruguay.

We truly appreciate the opportunity to be with you once again. We had a great meeting yesterday and we really appreciate the strong working relationship between out two countries.

I have had the opportunity also to see many of my colleagues from throughout the Americas over the last couple of days and we truly appreciate the opportunity to speak to so many ministers about the issues that are important to our countries.

It is truly a great pleasure for me to speak to such a distinguished gathering as we have here today about the vital nexus between agriculture and protection of the public health.

I have been asked to speak to you today about the role food safety plays in the harmonization of trade with the Americas.

This ministerial and the Pan American Health Organization's ongoing efforts on these issues are important building blocks in the foundation we need to achieve our common goals of a safe food supply and trade harmonization.

Cooperation will be a theme throughout my remarks today, because we are moving closer to the fulfillment of a grand vision ... that of a free-trade area spanning our entire hemisphere.

The elimination of trade barriers under negotiation of the Free Trade Area of the Americas would create a formidable market, with a population of 800 million people across 34 countries ... and an annual gross domestic product of $13 trillion (1).

As we seek to expand and maintain markets and the confidence of consumers in our own countries and worldwide, our challenge will be to address legitimate concerns, in areas such as food safety ... without erecting unnecessary barriers to trade.

It is quite appropriate that PAHO is hosting this meeting, because it was in this hemisphere that our modern, global efforts to address food safety, and sanitary and phytosanitary measures and their trade ramifications were born.

In 1986, in Punta del Este, Uruguay, the Uruguay Round of trade negotiations was launched.

I was privileged to be a part of the U.S. government delegation, which attended that meeting.

One of the most momentous decisions that was made was to incluye sanitary and phytosanitary measures in trade negotiations that had previously been limited to tariffs, quotas, and similar border measures.

The talks we launched in Punta del Este ultimately yielded the WTO [World Trade Organization] Agreement on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, or what is commonly referred to as the SPS Agreement.

The SPS agreement was born out of the realization that as tradicional tariff and non-tariff trade barriers were reduced, sanitary and phytosanitary measures would gain importance in global trade in food and agricultural products.

For better or worse, we were right.

Since the conclusion of the Uruguay Round in 1996, there have been over 20 WTO dispute settlement actions involving the SPS Agreement, and innumerable issues that have arisen but have not been taken to the WTO for various reasons.

The critical importance of the SPS Agreement is that it establishes clear rules that give governments ample flexibility to fulfill their central roles of protecting the health and safety of the public and the agriculture industry, while at the same time preventing the abuse of SPS measures for protectionist ends.

Policymakers in all countries owe it to farmers, the food industry and consumers alike to ensure that food safety is an issue where we find common ground, rather than a battleground.

The basis for that common ground was found in the principles that were rooted in sound science, and not the shifting winds of geopolitics.

Using standards and guidelines that are not based on scientific principles runs the risk of confusing consumers and eroding public confidence in the food safety systems.

In order to prevent such abuses, it is vital that we work together to establish consensus and to increase participation and cooperation within the international bodies that can assist food safety and trade efforts.

Last year during the "World Food Summit-Five Years Later" in Rome, we hosted a meeting of agriculture ministers from all throughout Latin America and with IEKA to discuss more effective regional cooperation on trade and regulatory issues.

We urged more cooperation to address confusion and uncertainty that has arisen regarding cross-border sanitary and phytosanitary sigues and conflicting biotechnology regulations.

We discussed a greater role for the Inter-American Institute for Cooperation on Agriculture, or IICA, to help facilitate regional cooperation and harmonization of regulations and procedures.

This is one of the reasons why the alliance between PAHO and IICA is especially important and will play a greater role as we look to the integration of the Americas.

This alliance will allow both organizations to build upon each other's strengths and technical expertise with an action-oriented plan that seeks to improve the agricultural economies throughout the Americas.

There are many international bodies whose efforts are becoming increasingly vital.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission helps set standards for human health and food safety, and the International Office of Epizootics and the International Plant Protection Convention relate to animal and plant health, respectively.

These organizations serve as key reference points under the WTO, especially when it comes to the dispute-resolution process.

To the extent that these international bodies establish standards based on sound science, their contributions will be vital to advancing the enforcement of existing WTO rules and the trade obligations of member nations.

To the extent that these standards are based on arbitrary decisions or political considerations, non-tariff barriers will remain and potentially increase as member nations adopt them.

For instance, efforts to extend the so-called precautionary principle to WTO countries are troublesome and fly directly in the face of the science-based approach established by the SPS agreement.

Some nations may even adopt misguided principles out of the fear of lost markets in other nations.

We should not harmonize just for the sake of harmonization, with regulations that cater to the lowest common denominator. Instead, regulations should be based upon scientific evidence and not the presence of mere theoretical risk.

As I have stated, it is crucial that policymakers avoid the misuse of the SPS Agreement to protectionist ends.

One area in which that is clearly happening is biotechnology.

Biotechnology -- accompanied by strong, effective regulation -- is one potential tool to address issues of food safety and food security around the world.

The fact is that the opponents have been long on politics and short on science.

Recent research has shown the potential for future advances such as fruits and vegetables that are resistant to viruses and bacteria... foods that may one day contain easy-to-administer vaccines for humans and animals ... and products that are altered to improve their nutritional content.

Clearly, developments in science and technology hold the promise of making a key contribution to food security and food safety, and the quality of our lives.

An upcoming Ministerial Conference and Expo on Agricultural Science and Technology, which we are hosting, will explore these issues, as well as new technologies and new solutions to the challenges we face.

Already, more than 100 ministers, some of whom who are here today, have indicated that they will attend this conference, which will be held June 23 to 25 in Sacramento, California.

Some of the highlights of this conference will include:

  • Discussions by policymakers on the critical role of science and technology in 21st century agriculture.

  • An opportunity to establish research, technology and information exchanges.

  • A roundtable of agricultural, environmental, and research ministers from around the world to discuss and showcase agriculture-related technologies that can change lives, economies, and the health of consumers.

  • Discussions about technical assistance and capacity-building initiatives to promote technology transfer to developing countries.

It is vital that international organizations such as PAHO and IICA reorient their missions in developing countries to focus on the efforts that will bear the most fruit... efforts that look to the long term, such as capacity building and technical assistance.

It is also imperative for those countries with the resources and the expertise to contribute to capacity building and technical assistance efforts.

Nowhere is capacity building more critical than in the area of food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary measures.

Countries will only be able to benefit from expanding trade opportunities for food and agriculture if they have effective food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary systems in place and are able to meet the standards of other countries.

Furthermore, when we help another country control problems such as BSE and foot and mouth disease, we are at the same time helping to avoid those problems within our own borders and those around us.

USDA has been involved with other agencies and partners in a number of specific efforts to promote food safety and plant and animal health in the Americas through capacity-building and technical-assistance efforts.

We have used the Cochran Fellowship Program to bring foreign technical experts to the United States to train in areas such as WTO technical requirements on food safety and sanitary and phytosanitary issues.

The U.S. government has also funded participation at WTO's Sanitary and Phytosanitary committee meetings for representatives from 32 IICA member countries.

The project will help countries in the hemisphere gain a better understanding of the SPS committee and learn how to better implement SPS commitments.

The United States has also been involved in a number of other projects designed to help developing countries in the Americas improve their capabilities to meet WTO obligations, especially regarding sanitary and phytosanitary needs.

As we pursue the Doha Development Agenda and ask that developing nations embrace an agenda of trade reform, we must also demonstrate that these nations will share in the benefits of trade.

Assisting with needs involving technical expertise, technology sharing, and infrastructure development all represent cooperative efforts that will be needed to achieve trade harmonization and improvements in global food safety.

Homeland security and bioterrorism have emerged as a new focus in our post-September 11th world.

The United States has responded with additional measures to prevent the intentional introduction of pathogens or adulterants into the food supply, as well as to strengthen animal and plant health protections.

But no nation should use homeland security concerns as a pretext to set up protectionist measures ... or those not based on sound science or which violate the SPS Agreement.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture is committed to working with our food-safety partners at the Food and Drug Administration and other U.S. government agencies to minimize trade impacts related to homeland security measures... and to address the concerns of our trading partners.

There are few enterprises that are more global in their scope than agriculture.

And as we all know, issues of food safety, and animal and plant health do not respect national boundaries.

That is why we must all dedicate our efforts to a cooperative approach, in the spirit of the Uruguay Round that began in our own hemisphere.

Trade liberalization, accompanied by science-based food systems that protect the public health, has the unparalleled potential to Benedit all of us in the Americas and all around the world.

We all stand to reap the benefits, if we only commit ourselves to working together.

Thank you very much.

1) Note: In the text "trillion" means 1,000,000 million.

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