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Corporate-Rigged Trade Deals: Undermining Food Safety

Trade pacts can require us to limit food labeling and to import meat and poultry that do not meet U.S. food safety standards

The rapid growth in imported food combined with current trade pact rules prioritizing expansion of food trade volumes by limiting countries’ food safety policies means that U.S. consumers are increasingly being forced to rely on foreign governments to regulate the safety of foods sold and consumed here. Unfortunately, recent experience has highlighted that many foreign regulatory systems are simply not up to the task. Thus, relying on foreign governments and their food safety systems to protect Americans' health is a recipe for disaster.

The North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) required us to allow meat and poultry imports from Mexico and Canada if their safety regime was deemed “equivalent” to our own, even if core aspects of our food safety requirements were not met, effectively requiring us to outsource our food inspection to other countries. Even after infrequent U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) spot checks of a sample of Canadian and Mexican processing plants found major health threats, their safety regimes were still deemed “equivalent” to U.S. standards.

Under this corporate-rigged model, any U.S. food safety rule on pesticides, labeling or additives higher than international standards can be subject to challenge as “illegal trade barriers.” The United States can be required to eliminate these rules and allow in the unsafe food under threat of trade sanctions.

Even consumer-friendly food labels are undermined by corporate trade deals. In order to avoid the $1 billion in annual sanctions from Mexico and Canada authorized by the World Trade Organization (WTO), Congress repealed the country-of-origin meat label law. And, under NAFTA and other pacts, a foreign meat processing or food corporation operating within the United States can directly challenge our policies that they claim undermine their expectations – creating the potential for a barrage of new demands for taxpayer compensation.

The good news is that a major threat to the safety of our food was averted when trade activists around the world succeeded in stopping the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP). The TPP would have expanded our requirement to allow food imports if any of the other 11 country’s safety regime was deemed “equivalent” to our own.

The U.S. Food and Drug Administration already inspects less than 1 percent of all seafood imports for health hazards. A TPP including Malaysia and Vietnam would have increased seafood imports and further overwhelmed inspectors’ limited ability to ensure the safety of our food. Some TPP countries have serious shrimp and fish safety issues. For example, even with the minimal inspections, high levels of contaminants have been found in Vietnam’s seafood.

The TPP would have expanded the limits on consumer labels providing information on where a food product comes from, how it was produced, or if it contains genetically modified ingredients that are already included in existing “trade” agreements.

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