Tuesday, 17 July 2007

Another interview with the Wall Street Journal: Safety Becomes a Hot Trade Issue

I was recently interviewed by the WSJ for the trade war between the US and China on technical standards. Here's the story. The WSJ (China) also has a Chinese version here, which is also reproduced at the end of the current page:

Safety supplants quotas as hot-button trade issue; As China, U.S. play tit for tat, fears grow rules may be abused

Andrew Batson. The Wall Street Journal Asia. Hong Kong: Jul 16, 2007. pg. 1

As China and other nations exchange heated accusations over the safety of their food and other products, it is becoming clear that safety and quality standards are increasingly replacing tariffs and quotas as focal points for international trade disputes.

In the latest of what appears to be an escalating series of tit-for-tat moves, Chinese authorities Friday announced a temporary suspension of imports of some products from several U.S. meat processors, including Tyson Foods Inc., Sanderson Farms Inc. and Cargill Inc. The notice said China's tests had found safety problems including salmonella in frozen chicken from Tyson and residues of growth hormones in Cargill's frozen pork ribs.

The move highlights the Chinese government's determination to show it has food-safety issues under control after a series of scares and scandals has undermined the confidence of domestic consumers and hurt the image of China's exports abroad. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration has blocked shipments of Chinese-made toothpaste and of several types of farm-raised Chinese seafood, because of worries about chemical contamination. In recent days, Chinese authorities have pledged to tighten scrutiny of exported products, and said that thousands of unlicensed or unsafe food producers have been closed down.

They also have pledged to look more closely at what China is importing from abroad. In addition to the frozen chicken and pork ribs blocked last week, China in recent weeks has turned back shipments of French bottled water, Australian seafood and U.S. drink mix that authorities said were contaminated or failed safety tests.

Safety standards have a history of being used as trade barriers, a pattern that observers in both China and the U.S. worry may be reappearing. The back and forth of blocked imports looks increasingly like a trade battle, although one in which accusations of endangering consumers have taken the place of charges of unfair competition and dumping.

'We are likely to see these requirements increasingly being used, and abused, as a trade barrier,' says Leora Blumberg, an international-trade adviser based in Hong Kong for the law firm Heller Ehrman LLP. Ms. Blumberg, a former South African trade official, says that a series of global trade pacts has reduced import duties across the board and restrained nations' ability to block trade through other means.

The current U.S. furor over issues such as tainted pet food and dangerous toys that were made in China has emerged at a time when U.S.-China trade is a potent political issue in Washington. Several U.S. lawmakers had called for trade sanctions against China because of what they describe as unfair trading practices, even before safety concerns became widespread.

'It's difficult to weigh what is the safety element and what is the trade element, but my sense is that both elements are there in the discussions,' says Zhang Hongjun, a partner in the law firm of Holland & Knight LLP who divides his time between China and the U.S. 'Certainly it provides a lot of support to the people who are anti-international trade or anti-China trade.'

The growing food-safety tension between the U.S. and China threatens to further complicate an already delicate period in relations between two of the world's major economies. 'The risk is a cascade of punitive or blocking steps, misinterpretation, second guessing and retaliation,' Donald Straszheim, of the investment firm Roth Capital Partners, wrote in a recent report. 'This is the last thing we need.'

No one disputes that regulators in China and the U.S. have genuine concerns over consumer welfare and food safety. The rise in public concern over health and food safety in wealthy North American and European countries also has pushed governments to be tougher on safety standards.

But the highly technical nature of food safety and product standards gives governments a lot of leeway in practice, and makes it difficult to ensure that rules are enforced fairly and objectively. That is challenging the international-trade system to find ways to resolve this particularly thorny type of trade dispute.

'There are lots of standards where it's impossible to judge whether it is for consumer protection or to create trade barriers,' says Henry Gao, a former World Trade Organization official who now teaches at the University of Hong Kong. The WTO requires any safety standard to have a scientific basis, but that is usually 'a procedural safeguard, not a substantive analysis,' Mr. Gao says. That is because the WTO often isn't equipped to judge the scientific basis of such rules, so it simply looks to see whether a country followed a proper process when drafting them.

Adding to the convergence between the two issues is that sometimes groups calling for trade protection also are flagging safety concerns.

For instance, the Southern Shrimp Alliance, a U.S. industry group that has filed trade complaints against imported Chinese shrimp, also has called for more testing of imported seafood, calling the nation 'a known violator of U.S. food-safety laws.' China has acknowledged shortcomings in its regulatory system but says more than 99% of U.S. food imports from China passed Food and Drug Administration inspection in each of the last three years.

'Governments are sometimes pressured to go beyond what is necessary to protect human, animal and plant health and to use this type of restriction to protect domestic industries from foreign competition,' says Ms. Blumberg, of the Heller Ehrman law firm.

China and other developing nations frequently complain that tough safety standards are being used to keep their products out of rich nations' markets. Poorer nations often don't have the resources or expertise to cope with constantly shifting technical requirements, or to effectively challenge them as trade restraints. At meetings this year of WTO committees, several developing countries said they feel the expanding number of standards is blocking trade. Argentina, for example, has asked for a review of new standards on acceptable levels of pesticide residues.

China has stepped up efforts to make sure exporters are up to date on new standards in their target markets. The government has estimated that 15% of all Chinese exporters encountered some form of technical trade barrier last year, causing them direct losses of some $75.8 billion. China exported $969.08 billion of goods last year.

'Traditional trade policies like tariffs and quotas have less and less impact on international trade, while the impact of technical trade policies such as standards, technical regulations and conformity-assessment procedures is becoming increasingly obvious,' China's Commerce Ministry said last week.

The WTO has a special committee devoted to food-safety issues in trade — known as 'sanitary and phytosanitary measures' — where nations can raise concerns about each other's policies. But many disputes drag on for years: Out of 245 problems raised at the committee over the past decade, a solution has been reported for only 66, according to WTO figures.

One outstanding complaint by the U.S. is China's restrictions on imports of U.S. beef, which date from the finding of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad-cow disease, in a U.S. cow in 2003. The U.S. has taken several measures to make sure supplies of beef won't be contaminated by any future cases of the disease, and contends China's import ban is excessively cautious. The U.S. ambassador to China recently met with the agency in charge, the General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine. But despite such lobbying, the ban hasn't been lifted.


中國政府週五"以牙還牙"﹐ 宣佈暫停進口泰森食品有限公司(Tyson Foods Inc.)、嘉吉公司(Cargill Inc.)和Sanderson Farms Inc.等數家美國肉類加工商的部分產品。中國在公告中稱﹐檢測中在上述公司部分產品中發現了安全問題﹐如泰森的凍雞中含有沙門氏菌﹐嘉吉的冷凍豬排骨中含有生長激素殘餘物。

‧ "中國製造"危機
面對近期發生的一系列有損國內消費者信心和出口產品形像的醜聞﹐中國政府此舉凸現了其嚴格控制食品安全的決心。此前﹐美國食品和藥物管理局(Food and Drug Administration, FDA)禁止了中國產牙膏和多種養殖海產品的進口﹐原因是擔心這些產品受到了化學污染。近日來﹐中國有關部門已承諾加大對出口商品的審查力度﹐同時表示已下令關閉了數千家無證經營和生產問題食品的企業。



曾經身為南非貿易官員、現擔任律師事務所Heller Ehrman LLP駐香港國際貿易顧問的麗奧拉•布隆博格(Leora Blumberg)說﹐使用、濫用安全標準作為貿易壁壘的情況可能會越來越多﹐現有的一系列全球貿易協議已使得貿易進口關稅普遍下降﹐國家間通過其他手段設立貿易壁壘的行為也受到了大大的限制。


"很難說這裡面哪些是安全層面哪些是貿易層面的因素﹐但我的感覺是兩個層面的因素都有﹐"Holland & Knight 律師事務所合夥人張紅軍如是說。這位為工作而不斷往返中美兩地的律師同時表示﹕"當然﹐這給那些反對國際貿易或反對對華貿易的人提供了不少的口實。"

中美食品安全問題上緊張氣氛的不斷加劇有可能使這兩個世界主要經濟體之間眼下本已相當微妙的關係變得更加複雜。投資公司Roth Capital Partners的唐納德•斯特拉斯哲姆(Donald Straszheim)在近日的一份報告中寫道﹐目前的風險是﹐從懲罰性和限制性舉措﹐到接下來的曲解、猜忌和報復﹐勢態會不斷升級﹐這些是我們最不願看到的事情。



曾任世界貿易組織(World Trade Organization, WTO)官員、現在香港大學(University of Hong Kong)任教的高樹超(Henry Gao)說﹐標準有很多很多﹐你根本無法判斷它什麼時候是為了保護消費者﹐什麼時候是為了設立貿易壁壘。他說﹐世貿組織要求任何安全標準都要有科學依據﹐ 但這往往只是程式上的保護﹐而非實質性的分析。那是因為世貿組織往往不具備判別這類安全標準科學依據的能力﹐因此它只是看成員國在起草安全標準時是否遵循了恰當的程序。


舉例來說﹐美國行業團體Southern Shrimp Alliance在對中國進口蝦產品提出貿易申訴的同時﹐還要求加強對中國進口海產品的檢測﹐稱中國是"違反美國食品安全法的慣犯"。中國則一方面承認自身監管體系的不足﹐同時卻表示過去三年間中國出口美國的產品中有99%以上都通過了FDA的檢測。

前文提到的Heller Ehrman國際貿易顧問布隆博格說﹐有時政府是迫於壓力才在保護人和動植物健康所必須的手段之外使用這一類限制措施來保護本國企業免受海外競爭的衝擊。


中國也已加緊努力確保其出口商隨時跟得上各出口市場安全標準的變化。據中國政府估算﹐本國15%的出口商去年遭遇到一定程度的技術性貿易壁壘﹐直接損失約758億美元。中國去年的出口總額為9, 690.8億美元。



美國就中國限制美國牛肉進口所提出的申訴就是眾多未決案中的一起。此案事起2003年美國一頭牛被發現染有瘋牛病。事發後美國採取了多項措施確保今後的牛肉供應不會受到污染或瘋牛病困擾﹐但中國一直沒有取消美國牛肉進口禁令。美國因此向世貿組織提出申訴﹐稱中國進口禁令過分。近日美國駐華大使與中國國家質量監督檢驗檢疫總局(General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine)官員見了面﹐但遊說無果﹐禁令猶在。

Andrew Batson

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