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Free trade is not much good to Americans if the cheaper food they get to buy as a result ends up killing them or making them sick.

Congress should keep that in mind when it acts on President Clinton's plan to beef up inspections of imported fruits and vegetables and to ban produce from countries that don't meet U.S. health and safety standards.

Beyond just inspecting the products when they arrive, the new plan would have U.S. inspectors monitor farming methods and safety systems overseas to provide added assurance.

That sensible move may well bring howls from trading partners, and perhaps formal protests to the World Trade Organization. But it should be easily defensible as long as it merely holds foreign producers to the same standards as those imposed on U.S. farmers. When it comes to food safety, the playing field has to be leveled up, not down.

That playing field will be defined in part by voluntary guidelines the administration is asking the U.S. food industry to come up with so that everyone is playing by the same, safe rules.

Those guidelines are needed because the risk to Americans is twofold. Beyond such obvious hazards as eating foods grown with polluted water from a nation with underdeveloped safety systems, a lack of immunity to imported contaminants may threaten U.S. consumers.

That increases the risk of outbreaks like those recently caused by cantaloupes from Mexico, raspberries from Guatemala and coconut milk from Thailand.

Despite such incidents, consumption of imports continues to rise dramatically as trade barriers are lowered. Americans now get 38 percent of their fruit and 12 percent of their vegetables from overseas. That dramatic growth makes it imperative that Americans be guaranteed as much as possible that the fruits and vegetables they and their children are eating are safe.

The Agriculture Department -- which has authority over meat and poultry -- already has the power to ban imports of those products from countries whose safety systems don't measure up. Clinton's new proposal would give the Food and Drug Administration -- which has authority over all other foods -- the same power.

Currently, the FDA can do inspections abroad only when invited by the exporting country. And despite the rise in imports and recent outbreaks caused by new contaminants, FDA inspections of arriving imports have fallen to half the level of five years ago. That's why the White House also wants to add more than 100 inspectors to enforce the new standards. The whole program would be paid for with $24 million the administration is seeking from Congress.

It would be money well spent and an expenditure the public undoubtedly would support.

Whether coincidental or not, the proposal comes at the same time that the administration is pushing for "fast track" legislation to make it easier to negotiate trade deals. Many in and out of Congress fear that such a law will lead to more imports produced under health and safety conditions that not only put U.S. workers at an unfair economic disadvantage, but that imperil U.S. consumers.

If the actual legislation lives up to what's now being promised, the new law could help alleviate both problems.

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