If nothing else, disputes over the safety of food and international commerce prove the old adage that one country's scientific standard is another's non-tariff trade barrier. And they are nothing new. During the late 19th century, a host of international trade disputes emerged along very similar lines.
In June of 1878, for example, a professor in Vienna reported that as much as 20 percent of pork from the U.S. was infected with the parasite trichinae. His report was telegraphed to several European newspapers, igniting flames of concern about the safety of U.S. pork. On February 20, 1879, Italy banned U.S. pork. By 1881, Greece, Portugal, Spain, and Germany had also restricted imports of U.S. pork.
Then, in March 1881, the London Times broke with a story that mixed fact, scientific confusion, and hysteria. The story described in gruesome detail a purported case of trichinosis (the ailment brought on by the trichina parasite) in the U.S. "thought to have been contracted by eating sausages" and suggested that trichinosis was related to a separate but wider problem of hog cholera in the U.S. Despite the reported case never being confirmed and the link between trichinae and hog cholera being scientifically unjustified, the damage was done. France, Switzerland, Belgium, Austria-Hungary, Turkey, and Romania adopted restrictions on U.S. pork in 1881, and Denmark followed in 1888. The European restrictions on North American pork imports appeared at first a straightforward adoption of policies to protect animal and human health.However, as in today's debates over mad cow disease, hormone-treated beef and genetically-engineered foods, they evolved into larger political issues where non-scientific issues exerted ever-increasing influence. And they are increasingly part of the processing landscape that requires additional documentation and controls to ensure the safety and source of basic commodities.
Do governments, 120 years later, continue to look to animal health and food safety concerns as a basis for keeping out competitive agricultural and food products? Or are the health concerns linked with tit-for-tat exercises as has been alleged with the ban on Brazilian beef and an on-going dispute over aerospace subsidies?
To answer these questions, we are much better prepared today than we were a century ago. International forums, particularly the World Trade Organization, encourage governments to adopt their trade-restricting regulations in an open, transparent manner. While international institutions may be imperfect, they at least provide a framework for addressing these questions. If transparency is allegedly lacking, dispute-resolution avenues are available. However, when health or safety is in question, consumers want answers immediately. As with any food-related risk, the goal for all from gate-to-plate should be risk reduction. With something like mad cow disease, that means better tracking of feed components and proper enforcement of well-intentioned rules. When bovine spongiform encephalopathy was emerging in the U.K. in the 1980s, the Brits slapped numerous slaughterhouse controls on what could and could not enter the human food supply; unfortunately, by 1995, it was painfully apparent that these rules were widely ignored. Great rules, lousy enforcement.
Further, consumers and customers are savvy enough to ask for the data to support safety claims. In an environment of culinary skepticism, it is no longer good enough to say that something is safe. Bring the data to the table. Which is why the FDA's survey of feed mill compliance released in January provides the basis for improvement and compliance.
But even with the best data, trade disputes will arise, for reasons of politics or science or both. Rather than chest-thumping, give transparency a chance.