Is North America Stifling Free Trade of Candy?

At a North American trade summit this week, Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper framed an issue by asking the question, "Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jelly bean?" Critics said Harper was just sugar-coating an important concern.

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Okay, further financial analysis from DAY TO DAY. You may have missed it this week. The North American Trade Summit took kind of a weird turn on its final day. Now, there was the usual back and forth about border checks in the Northwest Passage. But one item on the agenda took on an oversized symbolic importance - the jellybean.

NPR's Mike Pesca explains.

MIKE PESCA: International economic summits mean heads of states surrounded by security, protesters who feel marginalized, and a conflict between what leaders say is necessary work to shore up the economies, and what protesters say is the rich getting richer.

There are even allegations that what was going on among the captains of industry and political leaders at the conference in Canada was nothing less than turning North America into a kind of European Union with a single currency.

Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper said essentially, ah, yeah, not really; what we were really talking about were things like discussing what's written on candy wrappers.

Prime Minister STEPHEN HARPER (Canada): Is the sovereignty of Canada going to fall apart if we standardize the jellybean?

PESCA: He didn't think so, but Harper's critics say he was just sugar coating more important issues that the conference dealt with. Canadian Member of Parliament Peter Julian.

Mr. PETER JULIAN (Canadian Member of Parliament): Mr. Harper referred to jelly beans, but what about the issue of pesticide residues, which the government is already very clearly moving forward with?

PESCA: At which point the average man on the Manitoba Street says, wait, back to the jellybeans. What's up with them? Canadian businessman David Ganong was invited to the conference. As the president of a chocolate company, he was the person who first brought the issue of jellybeans to the fore. From his office in New Brunswick, Ganong can contemplate the humble bean's place in the vast landscape before him.

Mr. DAVID GANONG (President, Ganong Brothers, Ltd.): So if I take my jellybean - and where I'm sitting now, I can look out and I can see the hills of Maine. We're right on the Maine border.

PESCA: What's keeping Ganong's candy from easily and happily making its way to Maine isn't anything about the candy. It's about different nutritional panels that each country mandates. Each country has its own rules about what belongs on the labels and there are differences among them. What sorts of differences?

Mr. GANONG: The width of the line. If you're putting the amount of fat or other ingredients in and count it at grams, in one country you need to leave a space between the five and the G. In the other country you don't. In the case of the daily nutritional values, one country rounds the number that gives you a different percentage. And the other country takes an unrounded number.

PESCA: Unlike some products, like a book, which can say $20 U.S., 25 in Canada, With food you can't affix a single label with both countries' nutritional information. It's enough to dissuade the candy man from taking tomorrow and dipping it in the dew.

But the bigger issue is that there is a bigger issue. Jellybean red tape seems so ridiculous that it tends to belittle the truly soaring issues of international trade. Ganong himself acknowledges this.

Mr. GANONG: Well, I think there are quite a few of them that are simplistic, like the jellybean example, and can be resolved if the right people sit around the table. There are, across other industries, far more complex issues that are going to take time to try and resolve.

PESCA: At the summit, the president of Mexico seemed to agree when he said international trade talks need to address important issues like candies and medicines. George W. Bush somehow missed the opportunity to mention Ronald Reagan, great lover of jellybeans, great hater of red tape, and great fan of the rhetoric of the small, graspable example.

Mike Pesca, NPR News, New York.

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