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Office of the Press Secretary

For Immediate Release March 4, 1998
                            PRESS BRIEFING

The Briefing Room

2:27 P.M. EST

MR. LOCKHART: Hello, everybody. Before Mike comes down, we've got some people here to answer your questions on the food safety event that the President has just held.

Joining us today is Secretary of Agriculture, Dan Glickman; Michael Friedman, who's the lead deputy FDA Commissioner; and the United States Trade Representative, Charlene Barshefsky.

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: Thank you. Questions? (Laughter.)

Q I think there are a whole bunch of guys out there, still with some of the --

Q At the stakeout.

Q What's your opposition to this?


Q What's the opposition to this?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: Let me phrase it in a positive way, if I may. The legislation that's being proposed provides the Food and Drug Administration with an important new authority. Rather than being reactive and waiting to discover that some food that's being imported is not wholesome or has an offending microbe, this puts in place preventative systems so that the standards that are used in the United States, the level of protection that we have for our produce will be available in produce that's imported from other countries.

It's an important public health measure and we think is very much on the minds of American citizens.

Q So what's the opposition and how is it that it's not adopted instantly?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: Well, I think that concerns that could be raised have to do with will this in fact be based on science, and they certainly will; will these be collaborative and collegial, they will; will these standards be put in place as voluntary guidances that are generated by the best minds thinking about this kind of thing, the answer is certainly yes.

We think that this is very much not only in the public's interest, but we think it has important ramifications for even improving trade in the future because of the quality of the product. So we're very keen and see this as a major positive step.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: If I may just say -- I'm sure there are concerns out there that steps like these, in some people's minds, are efforts to restrict trade, to keep products out. And I think our point is, particularly in the area of agriculture, since we export $60 billion worth of agriculture commodities every year, that free and fair trade is life or death to American agriculture, as it is to other segments of the economy.

And what we're saying here is that under the trade rules, we have the authority to set the highest standards of health and safety as we think we need to and are consistent with good science. And there will be some from around the world, however, that will argue that this is a trade disrupting effort. We disagree with that. We work on similar problems with other countries all the time with respect to inflows of meat, other particular products, and it works out satisfactorily.

So this is an effort to ensure that the citizens of this country are given the fullest protection possible and it is not a trade disrupting effort. That would be a dagger in the heart of American agriculture.

Q Secretary Glickman, what should go through the mind of a consumer when they go to the grocery store and see -- should they be hesitant to buy produce that has imported labels when they hear about these cyclo-spora outbreaks and other problems?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: No. By and large, I think the food that's served in this country is safe. There is no question that we have had a history of inspection of meat and poultry since the 1920s that I think gives the consumer the confidence that somebody is looking, watching, and testing that product as it goes through lines.

And what we're doing here is providing basically similar authorities to the FDA and giving them the resources to do that kind of thing. But if consumers use good judgment and they buy products that are served in America's grocery stores, by and large it's safe. I don't think they would be there if they weren't safe. The grocery store wouldn't serve it if it weren't safe. But we're trying to make it safer and we're trying to fill in the gaps.

The fact of the matter is, we have, as the President says, a global economy. We have food moving from around the world, that no longer moves from 20 and 30 miles from your house. It's now produced, marketed, and transported everywhere in the world. And so the consumer just needs a higher standard of protection from their government.

Q Do any of the three of you have any qualms about produce from any country? Do you eat imported produce from any country as you go to the store?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: I think the American consumer should have confidence in the quality of the product that is being served in stores. I think that it's important to recognize that this legislation not only recognizes the vast number of imports that come into the United States today, but predicts in the future that there will be even larger number of imports. What we want to put in place is a scientifically based system that will effectively and efficiently deal with that vast volume of increased produce which will be coming in.

The number of food items coming into the United States as imports has doubled over the past five to seven years, promises to go up at least that steeply in the future. That's a tremendous benefit to the American consumer. We want to have systems in place that will do the best we can to assure the quality, the wholesomeness of that food product; but I think the American consumer should be confident.

AMBASSADOR BARSHEFSKY: If I might just add -- there are two sets of issues when you look at agricultural food safety and market access. On the import side, of course, we established the absolute right in the Uruguay Round agreements in 1994 that countries can set the highest health and safety standards it wishes, provided only that they're not discriminatory and that they are based on science. The steps we're taking today conforms completely with those rules.

On the export side, because as Secretary Glickman has said, $60 billion of our agriculture leaves the U.S. for foreign markets, we have to be absolutely sure that phony science doesn't block our exports, that phony or trumped-up sanitary and phyto-sanitary barriers don't block our exports. So we are very commited to sound science as the absolute standard to govern imports here and to govern exports there.

Q Can I ask you all a question. I know countries like Guatamala depend a lot on the sale of raspberries; Mexico, strawberries. Do your rules permit technical assistance? Maybe Guatamala doesn't have all the money to spend on some of the measures. Will you be able to provide countries like Guatamala with technical -- I think that would be just as interested --

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: I think that's a very important question. Not only does our planning -- as you know, the President and the administration has put in place an ambitious but very promising food safety program. Technical assistance, education and collegial interactions are at the very heart of that.

What we're proposing are to identify those scientific standards which assure a level of protection that the United States has, but to assist foreign countries in achieving those levels. So that's exactly at the heart of it.

Q While you're talking about sound science, do you folks have any studies that show that imported produce is contaminated at a greater rate than domestic produce?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: I think that there are vast volumes of imported materials, that these are very safe. There are rare examples where that isn't the case. I think this is not so much a recognition of a discrepancy between foreign and domestic at this point, as it is trying to increase the quality of our food supply from wherever it comes and, again, looking to the future. There are new sources of food. There are new pathogens that may emerge. There are different kinds of preparations that may be envisioned.

We want to position ourselves in the best way so that the American consumer can be confident in food in the future.

Q Can you tell us what the inspection program is right now for domestic produce? If you go to a farm stand and pick -- and purchase fruit or vegetables that supposedly come straight from the farm, are you telling consumers those have been inspected or in some cases have been inspected or how does that work?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: No. I think what we're saying is largely those have not been inspected. There are agricultural practices that are often in place that farmers adhere to. But we know that the kinds of water quality, field sanitation, worker safety -- those are some of the general features that one might look at and we have a good sense of those in the United States.

What we want to do is to examine our own practices, make sure that any guidance that should be offered to improve them is offered. And then, as you've just heard, as the Ambassador said, we want to have a level playing field so that everyone can make use of those good scientific practices.

Q It sounds like that there are no inspections here, you're saying that there should be inspections in other countries and it's not a level playing field.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: No, no. First of all, let me say this. By and large, the only part of the American food supply that's subject to federal regulation inspection on an intensive, day-to-day basis is meat and poultry. That's historical. We do that. We regognize that there are problems with ensuring the public food safety at the highest level on both domestic and imported foods.

As a part of the President's proposal, there are guidelines being proposed where USDA is going to help producers of fresh fruits and vegetables upgrade their standards -- voluntary guidelines, but recognizing that that has to part of the food safety scheme as well. It's not just imported produce.

We do think that by and large the standards of water quality and production methods probably are as high in the United States -- are higher than anywhere else in the world. But I can't give you an epidemiological study that gives you a difference between the data between what's grown here and what's grown elsewhere. All we do know, there have been some reported cases in recent years having to do with imported produce. But these standards do require the establishment of guidelines so domestic producers develop methods to ensure public health and safety as well.

Given that --

Q Mr. Secretary, there's a trade association which is questioning why the proposed law would make the food supply any safer, suggesting that it is already more than safe enough.

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: Let me answer your question in two ways if I may. First of all, I think it's a question for the American consumer, what is safe enough. And we know that the American consumer wants to have the safest possible food supply. So we have to do everything that we can, again, not just for today, but to recognize the future risks and benefits that may occur.

The second is that what exists now for the Food and Drug Administration is largely a reactive system, one which looks at products once they're at dockside or once they're being imported. That is somewhat effective, but we know that we can be more effective and use our resouces more efficiently if we reach out to institute preventative kinds of activities.

It makes very good sense. We've had very good relationships and very good success with other countries doing this sort of technical assistance and education. We've worked very successfully for low-acid canned foods with Europe, with a number of produce from different South American countries. We've had a very successful program with the Mexican government for pesticide residues. We know that this sort of interaction can be very effective. These are authorities that don't exist right now.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: And I would also say, a big part of the President's intitiative is money for grower outreach and education in this country, to try to do our best to improve standards of hygiene and food safety, as well. You have the legislation, but you also have a whole litany of proposals under the President's food safety initiative which is over $100 million a year total in additional money.

Q Well, Ambassador, if I may, can I just ask you, there seemed to be some concern on the part of industry representatives outside that if we were to hold back food, vegetables, produce that we didn't think met our standards, that they would boycott American exports.

AMBASSADOR BARSHEFSKY: I don't think that that is a realistic threat because of the way in which an issue of not allowing imports in would arise. That is, there would have to be a demonstration that the imports do not meet legitimate science-based U.S. health and safety regulation. All countries around the world have the right to stop agricultural products or other products which do not conform to domestic health and safety regulation. This legislation simply brings us up to that standard practice that many other countries have employed.

Q Two quick questions, Mr. Secretary. One, I'm a little confused on the percentages here when the President and Vice President talked about how many -- is there a percentage of what's on most people's grocery shelves that is imported, not currently --

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: Do you remember the numbers? The Undersecretary has the numbers, but --

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: I believe it's roughly 13 percent of fruits are imported currently; nearly 40 percent of vegetables, and more than 50 percent of seafood in the United States is currently imported. I'm sorry, eight percent of vegetables.

Q What is the vegetable figure?


Q And on seafood, you got to my next point. Is seafood included under this?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: Well, what the Food and Drug Administration currently has is a hazard analysis and critical control point, so-called HACCP program. That's in place currently. That is very successful. There are differences between that and what we're proposing here. That's a mandatory system. It's also scientifically based. It's very much like what the Secretary has been putting in place for poultry and for meat. What we've found since so much of that is imported from other countries is that rather than serving as erecting a trade or tariff barrier, rather than obstructing trade, in fact it's seen as something that assures the quality of the product and we think may even enhance trade in the future.

Q So is seafood -- is there mandatory inspection or control of seafood?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: There are mandatory controls, there are mandatory standards. There is not mandatory inspections in foreign countries. There are mandatory responsibilities that are placed upon the importer to assure that whatever the features are about that particular kind of seafood that we think are critical to the wholesomeness of that food, that those issues have been properly addressed. It might be temperature, it might be storage time, it might be how the product is caught. Each different kind of product might be different.

But they are responsible for showing us the records that these things have been attended to. It's a scientifically based system. I think it has a lot of promise. We've spent a lot of energy educating both domestic and others about it. We're optimistic. We need to test it.

Q But you don't plan any changes on seafood?

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: For seafood, no, ma'am, we do not. That system is going forward.

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: Let me just do this in context because it's important to -- we started with meat and poultry. Why? Because we had the filthy questions in the 19-teens and 1920s, and Upton Sinclair wrote a book called "The Jungle." And so we began the inspection. We have nearly 10,000 inspectors and veterinarians from USDA at meat-packing plants here and around the world. They all have to basically meet the high standards that we have. And then for a foreign country to ship in meat into this country, it has to be as safe as the meat that's served in this country.

As our dietary patterns began to change, we began to eat different items, including a huge amount of fresh fruits and vegetables, because the doctors tell you that's good for you. And we like to eat them full time, all year round, not just in the periods of time when they can grow in this country. And so because of that, the volume has increased exponentially. And that has created food safety challenges, both for domestically produced, but particularly for food that's imported, where there are no schemes of watching what's going on. And that's one of the reasons why we want to make sure that fruit and vegetables undergo a similar regime to what meat and poultry does.

We are also -- the food safety issue is a fluid issue. It is one that -- I suspect the President is going to talk about this issue repeatedly, because it is one of those things that is on everybody's mind, everywhere in the country. As I go around the country, they don't ask me as much about the price of soybeans as they do ask me how hot should they cook their hamburger. And it's a change in attitude in terms of what people are going on.

So we're in the process not only of this particular announcement, but having a continuing dialogue within the administration and Congress how we upgrade our food safety systems to ensure that the public continues to have the confidence that the systems are safe. So I suspect you're going to see further announcements as times go on in order to improve the system.

Q Mr. Secretary, can you tell us which countries have the best food inspection systems and which ones have the worst currently?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: No, I can just tell you I believe the United States has the best food inspection system.

Q But aside from the United States, any winners and losers in those two categories?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: I'll let -- I'm certainly not going to answer that.

ADMINISTRATOR FRIEDMAN: No, no. It's not a simple question to ask, and we won't apply these standards in simple-minded ways. What you do is ask about all of the factors that affect how food is grown, processed and shipped; and then look at the particular kind of food, look at the particular country, even look at the time of the year. What you want to have are standards in place that assure U.S. levels of protection. That can be achieved in a number of ways. What we want to do is to establish the goals and then work with the countries to come up with the very best ways to achieve that.

And this will not be a simple-minded activity. Inherent in your question is something very important. It might be possible that a particular country doesn't have standards in place country-wide; but it is entirely possible that there may be some farms or plantations in that country that do meet every standard that one could envision. Produce from those farms will be allowed into the United States. This is not meant to be some sort of blanket obstruction. This is meant to focus on the public health aspect and to protect the American consumer.

The Secretary has made a couple of very important points, if I may, I'd just like to underscore. The administration has made a very serious, very consistent commitment to the health of our citizens and providng our citizens with better quality food. That's been a consistent theme. This is another important step in that theme.

Secondly, the irony is that at a time when we understand better how nutrition plays an important role in the maintenance of health, in the prevention of disease, just as that time when we understand the medicine of nutirition we want to have available to our citizens the very best, most wholesome food in sufficient supplies. The two things just go hand-in-hand. I think those are two very important points that he made.

AMBASSADOR BARSHEFSKY: Let me, if I might, because of the import of your question, point out that the bulk of our agricultural trade issues and trade disputes, the vast bulk are between the United States and the European Union -- developed country to developed country. That is where most of the most difficult sanitary and phyto-sanitary barrier disputes exist. The European Union is concerned about our poultry, concerned about our beef, concerned about our corn, concerned about our soybeans. We have similar concerns coming in the other way. That's where the bulk of disputes arise.

Developing countries have, by and large, tended to want to learn how to improve their practices; they're very, very receptive, by and large. And we work very, very closely with them through technical assistance program and other programs. They appreciate, I think, generally, that reliability of supply is critical. But the fact that a country is developing or developed is not at all dispositive; and, indeed, when you look at the range of disputes, they tend to be with the European Union.

Q Just to clarify, I have one more question. So you're saying that we don't know which U.S. farms do or don't have these standards, but we're professing to find out which foreign farms do and don't have these standards?

SECRETARY GLICKMAN: No, that's not quite correct. I think that there are a variety of inspections -- and I'm sorry if I wasn't clear in answering your question before. There are a variety of inspections that do take place of produce that made in the United States. Often, it is not on the farm, often it will -- more often, it will be at the grocery store or a distributors, places like that. Those inspections do take place.

It's very important to understand that growers, agricultural associations in the United States feel that the kind of guidance practices that we're talking about are so important that they are doing it. They're devising these now, they're educating their members about it. Clearly, this is a theme that the vast majority of people think is an important one. And we're proceeding along that. We want to work together, we want to make it scientific, we want to make it practical. Most of all, we want to build the confidence of the American consumer.

Thank you all very much.

THE PRESS: Thank you.

END 2:50 P.M. EST