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IPC Position Paper No. 11

Achieving Public Confidence in the Global Food System

An overview

Before the Uruguay Round Agreement of GATT, most trade disputes between countries concerned the levels and methods of support provided to farmers. In the years since the Uruguay Round, trade tensions and disputes have been increasingly linked to consumer concerns. Because the world food system has become more globalized, these concerns have often spilled over into the trade arena. Maintaining consumer confidence in the global food system without jeopardizing the benefits of a more liberal trading system is a critical concern.

The aim of the present IPC position paper is three-fold. First, to put into perspective the different impediments to consumer confidence that are affecting international trade today. Second, to consider possible answers which may already be found in existing rules. And third, to provide an outline for where to go from here. The objective is to assure consumer confidence, while respecting the fundamental importance of free trade to the well-being of today's global economy.

The most universal needs and expectations of all consumers about the food they consume are safety, price and availability. The most basic role of public policy is to ensure that these fundamental consumer needs are met. Once they are met, consumers often exercise personal preference in their purchasing decisions. At this point, the market should be relied upon to provide consumers with such amenities, and government's role becomes one of ensuring that claims made by industry are not false or misleading.

Consumers are the major beneficiaries of a more open trading system because more open trade addresses the most fundamental consumer concern of all - adequate supplies of affordable food. Moreover, a global food system based on open trade and guaranteed access to food supplies allows countries to weather production shortfalls at home and other food crises, without expending precious resources supporting unsustainable production. It is important for countries - particularly developing countries - to base their food security strategy on trade rather than self-sufficiency.

Consumer expectations about food safety are most effectively addressed by sound domestic and international regulations. These regulations need to be science-based, transparent and predictable. Given the crucial role trade plays in generating economic growth and in providing consumers with access to affordable food supplies around the world, specific consumer expectations should be accommodated in ways that do not distort trade, or which distort trade as little as possible.

Precaution is warranted when dealing with food safety and protection of the environment. However, such precaution should fall within the limits set by the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures. Consumers must have adequate information to make informed choices. Mandatory labeling should be used when consumer health and safety are at issue, but voluntary labeling is preferred for products that cater to consumer demands for particular methods of production.


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