Import Safety: Regulatory Governance in the Global Economy

Import Safety: Regulatory Governance in the Global Economy

Import Safety: Regulatory Governance in the Global Economy

Import Safety: Regulatory Governance in the Global Economy


On World Food Day in October 2008, former president Bill Clinton finally accepted decade-old criticism directed at his administration's pursuit of free-trade deals with little regard for food safety, child labor, or workers' rights. "We all blew it, including me when I was president. We blew it. We were wrong to believe that food was like some other product in international trade." Clinton's public admission came at a time when consumers in the United States were hearing unsettling stories about contaminated food, toys, and medical products from China, and the first real calls were being made for more regulation of imported products. "Import Safety" comes at a moment when public interest is engaged with the subject and the government is receptive to the idea of consumer protections that were not instituted when many of the Clinton era's free-trade pacts were drafted.

Written by leading scholars and analysts, the chapters in "Import Safety" provide background and policy guidance on improving consumer safety in imported food, pharmaceuticals, medical devices, and toys and other products aimed at children. Together, they consider whether policymakers should approach import safety issues through better funding of traditional interventions--such as regulatory oversight and product liability--or whether this problem poses a different kind of governance challenge, requiring wholly new methods.


For centuries, governments have imposed legal obligations on businesses in order to protect consumers from harmful products. Bavaria’s Purity Law of 1516, one of the first consumer safety statutes in Europe, purported to protect consumers from unsafe beer. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, British judges and legislators developed principles of tort and fraud that provided more general protections. Today, consumer protection around the world depends significantly on domestic laws and institutions established after the rapid expansion of industrialization at the turn of the last century and on others created in response to social movements in the 1960s and 1970s.

We have now entered a new era that calls out for further legal change. Existing regulatory structures arose within a business climate much different from that of today’s globalized economy. Protecting consumers through proactive regulation has never been easy, but now such regulatory efforts face new challenges because of expansive growth in trade and rapid changes in technologies and economic conditions. Each year, more food products, drugs, and other goods move across national borders than any single government alone can inspect and test. Government officials face a growing set of regulatory targets abroad. Just identifying producers of ingredients and products in other countries poses daunting challenges; holding such foreign companies accountable for unsafe products presents still further administrative and legal obstacles.

If products entering the domestic marketplace from foreign countries are harder to regulate through traditional means, will consumer safety risks increase in an era of global trade? It seems likely they will. If foreign firms are harder to regulate, then the law’s deterrent effect will presumably also be diminished for such firms, making safety problems more likely at the margin. With trillions of dollars worth of goods crossing international borders each year, even a slight reduction in deterrence could lead to hundreds, if not thousands, of additional injuries or . . .

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