Last week in Rome, the Codex Alimentarius Commission adopted maximum residue level (MRL) standards for ractopamine hydrochloride, a feed ingredient used to promote leanness in pork and beef, on a close 69 to 67 vote. The U.S. Food and Drug Administration approved ractopamine as a safe feed additive 12 years ago, but the lack of international MRL has caused some confusion in international trade.

The Codex Alimentarius Commission, better known as Codex, was established by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and World Health Organization in 1963 to set food standards and codes of practice that contribute to the safety of food trade. Codex has approximately 185 countries plus the EU as members. With 136 members voting, about 50 members could have voted to increase the majority or voted to defeat the proposal. Opposition was concentrated in the EU, but also included China, Taiwan, India, Turkey, Iran, Egypt and Russia.

Science was not an issue. In addition to the U.S., regulators in 25 other countries have approved the use of ractopamine including Brazil, Canada, Costa Rica, Indonesia, Mexico, the Philippines, South Korea and other countries throughout the world except Europe. The human safety of meat products derived from pigs and cattle fed ractopamine had been confirmed by the Joint FAO/OIE Expert Committee on Food Additives, including scientists from the EU, in 2004, 2006 and 2010. The MRLs are 10 ppb in pork and beef meat, 40 ppb in livers and 90 ppb in kidneys.

According to Elanco Animal Health, a manufacturer of commercial products containing ractopamine, ractopamine is a feed ingredient that directs nutrients from fat to lean protein, helping increase the yield of lean meat from pigs and cattle. It is a synthetic organic compound, not an antibiotic nor a steroid hormone. Its use increases average daily gain and improves feed efficiency. Producing more with less is critical for sustainable production.

Ractopamine residues are already an issue in trade between Taiwan and the U.S. Taiwan has had an import ban on pork and beef with any residue, but is in the process of conditionally reversing the ban on beef imports with a residue, but excluding import of beef organs. Taiwans legislature plans to vote on the issue in late July. There are no plans for now to remove the ban on imports of pork with residues, even though under the Codex standards beef and pork should be treated the same. Most of Taiwans pork consumption comes from domestic production, but only a small amount of beef is produced locally. Also, ten times more pork is consumed annually than beef. Meat trade problems have spilled over into other trade relations between the countries. It is in Taiwans interest to find a solution, but the concerns of local pork producers must be addressed.

Russia is the worlds largest beef importer in 2012 at 1.1 million metric tons (MMT) according to estimates by the Foreign Agricultural Service of USDA and the second largest importer of pork at 0.9 MMT. Russia has a history of using non-science-based sanitary barriers to trade. After a seventeen year wait to join the WTO, the Russian parliament ratified on July 10 the country’s accession to the WTO, becoming the 156th member. Russia will be bound to comply with international standards unless they can explain a science-based reason not to comply. The National Pork Producers Council has already raised concerns about Russias commitment to the WTO rules-based system and Codex standards. Russia will need to go through a learning curve in the WTO process to decide how their interests can best be served. Ractopamine MRLs should not be a make or break issue for them.

The EU is the sixth largest importer of beef at almost 0.4 MMT in 2012, but is also the second largest exporter of pork, after the U.S., at 2.1 MMT. They may see an opportunity to sell ractopamine free meat even though the science says that the MRLs are totally safe. Their vote against the MRL standards probably influenced other countries to also vote no. Since the vote, the EU has reaffirmed its opposition to the standards and has no plans to change EU legislation on the issue.

China also bans pork from pigs fed ractopamine. China will import 0.650 MMT of pork in 2012, tied with Mexico for the worlds third and fourth largest pork importer. Another 0.4 MMT is expected to be imported through Hong Kong. Its uncertain how much of that pork will move to China. Combining China and Hong Kong imports, the 2012 total will be 1.050 MMT, making it number two in imports after Japan at 1.25 MMT.

Clearly there is somewhat of a disconnect between the vote in Codex on the ractopamine MRL standards and the political decisions to restrict trade for reasons other than consumer food safety. The beef situation is simple with only Russia among the major importers and exporters who may not implement the new standards. Pork is more complex with the number two and number three importers, Russia and China, voting against the standards. Some other smaller importers like Taiwan also opposed the new standards.

A country cannot be forced under the WTO agreement to import a product its citizens refused to eat. The country may be faced with retaliatory tariffs on export products if the WTO finds it in violation of its WTO commitments. For a country wanting to import pork and beef based on international scientific standards, they now have the Codex approved ones. As U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Vilsack said, “Consumers can rest assured that their food is safe, and exporters have greater certainty about the criteria they must meet in the international marketplace.”

The Codex Commission made the right decision based on the science; that was their sole responsibility. Each national government must now define a comfort level with the MRL standards. The U.S. and some other beef and pork exporting countries who voted for the Codex position will apply pressure commensurate with their interests in the issue. That pressure will be counteracted to the extent feasible. The U.S. has learned with beef exports and BSE that some middle ground is the only position viable for now. As conditions change, importers will likely become more comfortable with the new MRL standards.

Ross Korves is an Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade and Technology.