Many of us have heard that global free trade has been a job-killer. But what if it's also hazardous to your health?
Yesterday, we reported that only a fraction of foods imported to the U.S. are inspected. Moreover, a growing percentage of the foods Americans consume are imports—rather than being domestically produced.
In Washington, the federal Food and Drug Administration is so understaffed and tests so little imported food that, at best, only about 2 percent of food imports are physically inspected. And foreign-production operations tend to be inspected only when there are reports of contaminated food.
Meanwhile, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative in Washington is negotiating the Trans Pacific Partnership, or TPP.
The TPP, as history's international trade pact, involves the U.S. and 11 other nations, from Australia, New Zealand and several Asian nations, over to South America.
The key problem is that the threat to human health posed by contaminated foods could get worse under global trade, as exemplified by the TPP.
The Washington-based citizen-advocacy group Public Citizen is among those who have warned that the TPP contains provisions to redefine U.S. safety rules as "trade barriers."
That apparently applies to food-safety rules, just like it applies to the safety standards of durable goods. Some even allege that the TPP will force the U.S. to drop its safety standards and accept products made under foreign standards at face value.
According to the watchdog website Food and Water Watch, the TPP would allow companies to challenge as illegal trade barriers "any government policies that purportedly infringe on the companies' profits." This is done through "investor-state dispute resolutions."
These resolutions allow a corporation to sue federal, state or local governments if the corporation believes that a law or regulation will hurt its bottom line.
Food and Water Watch adds: "Foreign companies or investors could challenge regulatory safeguards that protect our families, our communities and our air and water at a global trade tribunal that could overturn the rule and award the investor monetary damages."
Concerns raised in Congress involve big tobacco companies that seek to legally challenge domestic laws which publicize the health dangers of smoking. If the public-health advisories about smoking can be redefined as a trade barrier, then "free trade" as we know it could be a factor in harming human health.
The U.S. imports fish and shellfish, fruits and nuts, vegetables and red meat, and many other foods. Because of cheaper labor costs overseas, it is sometimes less expensive to buy an imported apple than one grown here at home. Yet, there's almost no chance that your imported food, or the processing plant it comes from, was inspected by U.S. regulators.
In 2012, hundreds of Americans in 28 states were sickened by salmonella after eating yellow-fin tuna imported from India. After FDA inspectors found poor conditions at the Indian plant, the agency barred the seafood exporter from shipping products to America.
But what if U.S. food-safety standards and inspections, imperfect though they are, become a mere trade barrier and companies can sue to remove the safety rules?
Those inclined to call Congress on the TPP regarding food safety and other health concerns can do so at 202-225-3121 or 225-3121.
Yet when it comes to these investor-state resolutions, local and state health officials also come into play as our leaders in Washington negotiate global trade deals like the TPP not only out of public view—but also largely removed from meaningful congressional oversight.
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