International markets are important for many United States agricultural products. Trade agreements with various countries provide new market opportunities for United States producers. However, international trade can be a confusing and challenging area of the law to understand. The laws surrounding the export and import of agricultural products often change because of new and existing trade agreements that the United States has with other countries.

This article is the third in a series that the National Agricultural Law Center will publish discussing different areas of international trade. The first article of this series examined tariffs and how they impact international trade. The second focused on non-tariff barriers to trade and the World Trade Organization (“WTO”). This article will focus on the domestic agricultural trade laws and the agencies that oversee them.

The United States has many laws that impact international agricultural trade. These laws fall into many categories, including labeling, packaging, chemical residue tolerances, food safety laws, quotas, and tariffs. WTO member countries generally structure their domestic laws to meet international obligations. In the United States, various agencies are tasked with creating and enforcing these trade obligations.

Federal Agencies

There are several federal agencies whose roles are directly and indirectly related to international trade. Below is a brief overview of some of the agencies that have a significant role with international agricultural trade and the issues that they address.

The United States International Trade Commission

The United States International Trade Commission (“USITC”) is an independent, quasi-judicial federal agency with broad investigative responsibilities on trade matters. The primary responsibilities of the USITC are to investigate claims of unfair trade practices, and whether businesses in the United States have been harmed by the trade practice. If the USITC finds that a trade practice is harming United States businesses by producing a similar or directly competitive product, the agency can implement corrective measures. These measures can include increased tariffs, tariff-rate quotas, quotas, and negotiation agreements with foreign countries. The USITC also provides the President and Congress impartial information on international trade to help inform trade policy. Additionally, the USITC maintains the Harmonized Tariff Schedule of the United States.

Office of the U.S. Trade Representative

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (“USTR”) is responsible for developing and coordinating international trade, commodity, and direct investment policy. As well as overseeing negotiations with other countries. The USTR’s primary responsibilities include coordinating trade policy and resolving disagreements. The USTR is also responsible for negotiating and implementing agricultural provisions of trade agreements and monitors implementation of the United States Farm Bill programs to ensure that such programs remain consistent with international obligations.

United States Department of Agriculture

The United States Department of Agriculture (“USDA”) is home to several important agencies that handle matters related to international agricultural trade. The Agricultural Marketing Service (“AMS”) is in charge of marketing agricultural products both domestically and internationally. AMS also helps to ensure fair trading practices, and competitive and efficient marketplaces.

The Animal and Plant Health and Inspection Service (“APHIS”) is in charge of establishing and enforcing the United States’ health and safety measures. The goal of APHIS is to prevent any disease or harmful organisms from being introduced by regulating the fruit, vegetables, and other agricultural products that are imported into the United States. For example, APHIS has regulations that govern the importation of seeds, plants, and animals.

The purpose of the Foreign Agricultural Service (“FAS”) is to make sure products from the United States have market access in other countries. FAS works with other countries to build new market opportunities and improve United States agriculture’s competitiveness in the global marketplace. While FAS’s regulations focus on ensuring that there is a market for American products, the regulations also implement the Trade Adjustment Assistance for Farmers (“TAAF”) program. The TAAF program provides help to producers of farm commodities who are experiencing financial hardship because of a larger number of products being imported.

The Food Safety and Inspection Service (“FSIS”) ensures that meat, poultry, and egg products are safe for the public. FSIS is responsible for verifying that all meat, poultry, and egg products being exported and imported are safe for consumers. FSIS has implemented various regulations that govern the eligibility of foreign products to enter the United States. FSIS regulations require, among other things, the inspection of foreign products, inspection certification, and proper labeling of all products.

Food and Drug Administration

The United States Food & Drug Administration (“FDA”) is responsible for protecting public health by ensuring the safety and security of drugs and food supply. The FDA works with foreign governments to ensure that their health and safety measures align with the standards of the United States for all products being imported. Imported food products are subject to FDA inspection, and the FDA has the authority to detain agricultural products if they are not found to comply with United States requirements. All imported goods must meet a country’s necessary legal requirements before they can enter that country.

Customs and Border Patrol

The Customs and Border Patrol (“CBP”) is responsible for ensuring border security. The CBP enforces customs, immigration, and agricultural laws and regulations at all United States ports of entry. Part of this responsibility means that CBP is in charge of ensuring that prohibited agricultural items are not brought into the country.

Federal Laws and Regulations

The United States Constitution, through the Commerce Clause, gives Congress exclusive power “to regulate commerce with foreign nations, and among the several states, and with Indian tribes.” This means that Congress is responsible for approving and implementing trade agreements between the United States and foreign nations. The President has the power to negotiate international trade agreements, which are then submitted to Congress which has the authority to pass a final statute implementing the agreement. A trade agreement negotiated by the President between the United States and another country will not be legally binding until Congress passes legislation to implement the agreement.

One of the earliest major trade acts was the Tariff Act of 1930 which raised import taxes on products in order to protect American businesses and farmers. The 1934 Reciprocal Trade Agreements Act (“RTAA”) was later adopted in order to decrease the barriers to trade that the Tariff Act of 1930 put into place. The RTAA gave the President the authority to set tariff rates as well as the power to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could then approve or reject. The Trade Act of 1974 and the Trade Agreement Act of 1979 expanded the President’s authority to negotiate trade agreements by allowing the President to negotiate changes to nontariff trade barriers in addition to tariff trade barriers.

The United States is a party to many trade agreements, and is responsible for meeting the obligations of each agreement. Trade agreements on tariff and nontariff barriers must be approved and implemented by Congress through the passing of a bill. The Trade Act of 1974 gave Congress the authority to change its ordinary legislative procedures in order to fast-track the implementation of free trade agreement legislation. Under the 1974 Act, Congress was only required to conduct a direct vote on free trade agreement legislation. It was no longer required to open hold debates on the legislation or allow members of Congress to add amendments, as is typical for other types of legislation. This fast-track authority was renamed the Trade Promotion Authority (“TPA”) in the Trade Act of 2002. Historically, the TPA was reauthorized four times since 1974 because the authority is time limited and the President must request an extension. Most recently, the TPA expired on July 1, 2021. At this time, there has been no request for TPA extension by the President. The expiration of the TPA means that new trade agreements will not have a fast-track route through Congress when the implementing legislation for those agreements is being considered.


The laws and regulations that govern international trade are complex and can be confusing. The United States uses its federal agencies to implement and enforce laws and regulations to ensure that international trade is a fair and safe process for agricultural producers.



To view the other articles in this series, click here and here.

For more National Agricultural Law Center resources on International Agricultural Trade, click here.