By Lori Wallach and Todd Tucker
“His name was Colin; here are his papers,” said the waitress presenting a bound prospectus to two diners who possess a limitless interest in the origin, diet and even friendship circle of the chicken they are about to order. The scene comes from Portlandia, the sketch comedy that skewers the bobo lifestyle.
Most of us aren’t quite so inquisitive about our food. But in an era of mass food-borne illness outbreaks, we do need retailers to provide basic information about our foods’ origins, and regulators to ensure the accuracy of these claims.
The country-of-origin labels we now rely on come from a 2008 law that ensures we know in which countries our meat was born, raised and slaughtered. The policy resulted from decades of consumer campaigning in response to slaughterhouses’ practices of routinely combining dozens of animals from diverse countries into the same hamburger patty, without having to even document the cattle’s origin.
Last month, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the law violated the global agency’s rules. A three-person tribunal in Geneva admitted that there was no strong evidence of quantifiable damage to Mexico and Canada, which challenged the law. Yet, if U.S. officials do not appeal or the appeal fails, the U.S. must weaken or eliminate the policy, or we face indefinite trade sanctions.
This is the third WTO ruling this year against popular U.S. consumer policies. The ban on candy and clove flavored cigarettes commonly used to hook teenagers and the dolphin-safe tuna labels instrumental in reducing fishing fleets’ killing of dolphins have also been declared WTO-illegal. All three policies represented a carefully constructed balance, attempting to protect consumers while minimizing compliance costs on businesses. In other words, the middle ground between Portlandia and The Jungle, Upton Sinclair’s famous slaughterhouse expose.
How did consumer information labels become violations of international “trade” agreements, which traditionally covered only tariffs and quotas? Multinational agribusiness and other corporations led a decades-long effort to use these agreements to categorize many consumer and environmental safeguards as forms of protectionism. Thus, most provisions in today’s “trade” agreements do not govern cross-border flows of goods, but rather constrain the non-trade policies nations may apply domestically.
Attacks on Flipper and the safety of the food in our homes can only intensify Americans’ skepticism of current trade policies. Polls show that trade-related job offshoring is among voters’ top concerns, while majorities of GOP, Democrats and Independents now view our trade deals as bad for their families and our nation. When President Obama pushed trade deals through Congress in October that contained similar anti-consumer rules, a record level of Democrats abandoned their own president.
Contrary to the rhetoric of the interests benefitting from these over-reaching agreements, the choice is not between the status quo or no trade. The question is what rules can deliver the benefits of expanded trade, while also providing our elected representatives the policy space to weigh and balance business and consumer interests to promote the public interest.
As the recent WTO rulings spotlight, the current rules are out of balance. This is not surprising, since they were established under a uniquely unbalanced negotiating mechanism known as Fast Track. This system expired in 2007, and greatly limited the role of Congress and the public. Meanwhile, it provided 600-plus corporate representatives with exclusive access to otherwise secret negotiating texts and to U.S. negotiators.
That old negotiating system and the agreements it produced may satisfy the one percent. But it does not deliver a right-sized trade policy to serve the rest of us.
Lori Wallach and Todd Tucker, director and research director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.