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Free Trade: Safe Food?

August 27, 1992|DANIEL P. PUZO | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The recently signed North American Free Trade Agreement is a disaster for food safety that will allow a flood of uninspected foods intS. markets, says a coalition of consumer advocacy groups.

Representatives of American agriculture dismiss the criticism, saying those making such charges are "misinformed." Yet food industry sources also express some reservations about the technical implementation of the plan.

"We are very concerned about the whole impact this trade policy has on food safety," says Lori Wallach, staff attorney for Public Citizen in Washington, one of 30 groups that have joined to form the Fair Trade Campaign. "This is going to be bad for people's food and bad for their health."

Canada, Mexico and the United States signed the free-trade agreement earlier this month; subsequent debate has centered on its impact on the environment and jobs. There has been very little discussion of the fact that food commodities traded between the three nations will be a multibillion-dollar industry.

Critics of the agreement claim that U. S. laws and regulations governing food safety will be compromised. They say that agreements will transfer the process of finalizing future safety standards to multinational groups, bypassing consumer and Congressional input. Further, other countries could challenge current U. S. food safety laws by claiming the American regulations are really trade barriers.

Details of the pact have yet to be made public, but some of the agreement's preliminary language now being circulated in Washington states that the three North American nations are free to set their own food safety regulations as long as the rules "do not result in unfair discrimination or disguised restrictions on trade."

"Real problems exist," says Rod Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute in Washington and a Fair Trade Coalition member. "The agreement threatens our ability to establish standards that are appropriate for the American public; allows a phase-in period for some imports that do not now meet our safety standards, and it could force us to lower our meat and poultry inspection standards."

Public Citizen, critical of both the North American pact and the global General Agreement on Tariffs and Trades, states: "The United States would have to show why it is not a trade barrier to halt the import of food which has more pesticide residues or other dangerous contaminants than our law allows; or which contain banned chemicals such as DDT; or which do not meet our labeling requirements; or which contain food additives which have not been approved (in this country)."

"Statements that this (pact) will weaken our regulations are simply not true. . . . We are not backing off in terms of food safety," says Mechel Paggi, senior economist with the American Farm Bureau in Park Ridge, Ill. "From what I know, the agreement ensures that existing U. S. standards and regulations for food safety and animal health will be maintained."

Paggi, however, says he is concerned about whether there are the resources and personnel to facilitate what will amount to a 100% increase in food trade between the three nations. "We hear complaints about the border today, and we will need to maintain quality controls on all food, animals and plants coming into the United States," he says. "When the increase in flow occurs then I hope we have the wherewithal to deal with it."

A meat industry trade association representative was more cautious.

"We are generally supportive of the principles of free trade but until we understand clearly how the (federal government) will address product equity and environmental issues, we will withhold specific comment," said Rosemary Mucklow, executive director of the Western States Meat Assn. in Oakland.

Some consumer groups have charged that, under a separate free-trade agreement negotiated between the United States and Canada, deficient Canadian meat products were crossing the border because U. S. Department of Agriculture inspections were greatly reduced. The U. S. meat inspection process was subsequently altered so that every Canadian shipment is "subject" to reinspection by U. S. officials at the border or at its ultimate destination.

Mucklow does not anticipate the same problems with Mexican meat. "U. S. inspectors have visited all the Mexican meat plants," she says. "They looked at them and their systems and they meet the standards to export products to the United States." She says that if evidence to the contrary surfaces, her group is ready to protest.

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