Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

The New Politics of Regulatory Cooperation: The Case of Food Safety

Academic journal article Proceedings of the Annual Meeting-American Society of International Law

The New Politics of Regulatory Cooperation: The Case of Food Safety

Article excerpt

The panel was convened at 9:00 a.m., Friday, April 11, by its moderator, Professor Kal Raustiala of UCLA Law School, who introduced the panelists: Professor Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy; Professor Joanne Scott of the University College London; and Professor Marsha Echols of Howard University Law School.


In the post-war era we have seen several major changes in the international system. One obvious and important change is an enormous increase in trade and trade institutions. Another related change, which dates from before the post-war period, but expanded during it, has been the rise of domestic regulatory rules of all sorts. We see this in the United States dating back to the 19th century, and really accelerating in the 20th century. This pattern is true elsewhere as well. The result has been dramatic growth in regulatory rules and institutions. In many respects it is a regulatory world that we now live in.

The immediate question that we address on this panel today is food safety. But the question of food safety is not just about food; it raises a host of broader questions that transcend food regulation. These include: how do domestic regulations interact with regulations from other nations in an interdependent world? Are domestic regulations simply trade barriers to be progressively decreased in some way? Or are they manifestations of unique national attributes that need to be preserved and protected? How do we work out these clashes in practice and theory, normatively, etc.? These questions are at the heart of the contemporary debate over food safety, and we have several terrific experts on this panel to address them.


Regulations to some extent are residual barriers to integration in the global economy. This is particularly true in the agricultural sector, in the food sector, which even now is being liberalized, but also it is cheap protection for the service sector. When the service sectors were created, there was no contest to place tariffs because no one thought they were tradeable. As a result, as globalization ensues, you are seeing more and more trade in services, and the barrier to trade is not any kind of tariff or any kind of non-tariff barrier, it is the regular domestic regulation in the service sectors.

The question posed in the panel summary is: are national regulations trade barriers bulwarks against dangerous imports, or expressions of national values? As a political scientist, the answer is they are all three. Sometimes they are a little more one as opposed to a little more of the other. There is an excellent article that a political scientist named Daniel Cuneho wrote, looking at expressions of regulatory standards as possible trade barriers. One of the things that he pointed out was that over time it has become more and more ludicrous for legislators to say "well, let's apply a tariff to a product," because that is so obviously protectionist that consumers, who want to have relatively low prices and cheap goods, will immediately detect it. As a result, they wind up coming up with what is called "optimal obfuscation"--that is, policies that can be interpreted in multiple ways.

A tariff is pretty obviously a protection for a domestic industry. On the other hand, imposing regulatory standards is much more ambiguous. Sometimes there are very valid reasons for imposing relatively strict regulatory standards, but in other cases sometimes it is a stalking horse for protectionism. We have seen that somewhat in the last year with the rash of safety scares regarding Chinese products, particularly pharmaceuticals. On the one hand, there were very justifiable health and safety concerns. On the other hand, it was awfully nice of domestic drug manufacturers to consistently, repeatedly point these facts out to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) and other salient regulatory agencies. …

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