Consumer protection has acquired an international dimension. Constraints must be placed on business practices worldwide so the third world does not become the dumping ground for chemicals (pesticides) and pharmaceutical products known to be unsafe. Many such substances cannot be sold in the countries where they are produced, says the United Nations.
The United States objects to what it perceives as attempts by the UN to interfere with the free flow of commerce between nations and opposes international regulatory efforts.
Acting at the request of the UN General Assembly, UN Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar drafted a report that sets out tentative guidelines for consumer protection worldwide.
In particular it takes account of the needs of developing countries, with an eye to the health and safety of their people. It recommends a number of international food standards and limits for additives and contaminants in food, and suggests a code of ethics for trade in food. It also encourages the use of mass media for promoting consumer education and disseminating information.
The new code, as reflected in the Secretary-General's report, places the burden of consumer protection on third-world governments. It would be up to these governments to tell exporting countries which products they do not want.
However, food and pharmaceutical products produced in the industrial nations and exported to the third world would have to provide the consumer with a comprehensive list of their ingredients.
''The restrictions we have in mind,'' says an African ambassador, ''apply only to products that have been declared unsafe in the countries where they have been produced and to those which have not yet been declared safe. Why should products that are bad for the rich be good enough for the poor?''
Sen. Larry Pressler (R) of South Dakota, chairman of the Subcommittee for Arms Control, Oceans and International Operations, and Environment, says ''such a UN code of business ethics would have a chilling effect on international trade . . . and would harm US interest in increasing exports and capital investment in other countries.''
The secretary general's report will be further debated and perhaps modified before guidelines are adopted.