Wednesday, April 04, 2007

U.S. Pet Food Recall: A National Issue with Roots in International Trade

Source: AP, FDA bars wheat gluten used in pet recall food

Last month, U.S. domestic pet owners were informed of a threat to their companion animals' health when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) announced a nationwide recall of almost one hundred brands of pet food. Since then, the recall has widened and tainted foods have been implicated in at least fifteen animal deaths. Additionally, many animals are being treated after having suffering kidney failure as a result of consuming the tainted food.

Today, the FDA announced that the source of the problem had been identified: contaminated wheat gluten imported from a Chinese manufacturer to a company that supplies U.S. pet food producers. As a result, imports of wheat gluten from the Chinese company have been blocked by the FDA, which also issued assurances that the tainted product had not made its way into the human food supply.

Nonetheless, officials have recommended screening all wheat gluten from China, as well as the Netherlands, which is involved in transshipping of Chinese wheat gluten. Officials concede that the recall may widen pending further investigation.

This situation raises a number of interesting questions from the perspective of international trade and in many respects recalls the global concerns raised after reports that U.S. beef producers had identified a case of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE, a/k/a/ "mad cow disease") in a “downer” beef cow. That news sparked moratoria on imports of U.S. beef by many countries despite assurances from the U.S. government that the case had been caught "early" and had not made its way into the food supply.

Aside from the fact that the instant case concerns pet food rather than "people food", it is notable that the tainted product--wheat gluten--is ubiquitous not only in pet foods, but also in foods consumed by humans. In the context of globalized trade, how might a recall on an extremely common ingredient in human foods (e.g., gluten, corn syrup) that is traded internationally play out?

How might it affect the global community's dual desire for free trade with minimal restrictions and product safety?

How might the need to ensure a safe food supply reshape the way we think about administrative and regulatory trade barriers?

How will bodies like the World Trade Organization (WTO) decide when and whether legitimate protections become illegitimate barriers to trade?

These are particularly interesting questions given the different standards for safety used by different governments and the notion that the right to do so is supported by notions of national sovereignty.

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