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Food & Drink Weekly

Food safety and trade mutually reinforcing, says ERS

Food safety and trade mutually reinforcing, says ERS

While food safety standards are frequently seen as technical barriers to trade, “improvements in food safety and expanded international trade are likely compatible and mutually reinforcing,” according to USDA’s Economic Research Service (ERS). Over time, says a recent ERS report, food safety around the world will continue to improve, along with the spread of private and public food safety control efforts, increased scientific understanding about food safety and improved dialogue between countries.

Food safety regulations and standards evolve differently around the world as countries respond to food safety crises and prepare for perceived exposure to emerging food safety risks, says ERS. With the growth of international trade, U.S. and global food production and distribution systems have changed significantly over the years, leading to a different set of food safety risks for the food industry and governments to manage. While foodborne outbreaks in the past were mostly acute, highly local and resulted from a high level of contamination, “now we see relatively more outbreaks from low level contamination of widely distributed commercial food products, affecting many countries, states and nations,” says ERS.

Around the world, ERS says both private and public sectors play separate roles in ensuring food safety. The private sector generally is the pioneer in food safety advances, since it has an added incentive to produce safer food to ensure sales growth in world markets. However, because market transactions do not include all of the social costs of safety, government regulation also is essential, says ERS. In essence, the private and public sectors respond to consumer demand for quality and safety, and “public and private approaches are often intertwined with each other and with multilateral coordination mechanisms,” says ERS.

“The causes of food safety and international trade disputes are varied, complex and tenacious,” and are likely to persist for some time, says ERS. Food safety disputes among trading partners may arise from a wide variety of sources. These may include new or more stringent standards and rapidly changing food safety regulations; the difficulty of separating the roles of food safety and non-science issues in regulatory decision making; strong differences in consumer risk perceptions and preferences; newly identified or unfamiliar hazards; and increased trade volumes from new or less proven resources.

“Facilitating trade without compromising consumer protection is an inherently challenging task,” admits ERS. Nonetheless there has been remarkably little disruption in trade for food safety reasons, despite large increases in the volume, value, and variety of food trade, says the report. “For the United States at least, there is no evidence that food safety risks are correlated with trade volume.”

“The complexity of food safety issues in trade means that disputes and difficulties will continue to arise. Nevertheless, the many similarities in regulatory approaches among industrialized nations may enable greater agreement about higher standards,” ERS concludes. The report is titled, “International Trade & Food Safety: Economic Theory & Case Studies.”

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