Food Safety on the Butcher’s Block

On April 11, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report that found that of the national efforts to improve U.S. food safety, “none of the targets were reached in 2007.” According to the CDC, 76 million Americans – one in four – come down with food poisoning every year. Among the most common is E. coli, a byproduct of the system of industrialized animal agribusiness. Americans have a common perception that the problem stems from food coming from outside the country – from China, say, or Mexico. Instead, it’s our food that’s the problem.

Instead of cleaning up its own act, the American meat industry has shifted responsibility to the consumer – not just in the United States, but also in countries where U.S. meat is exported. The United States is using bilateral trade agreements to arm-twist weaker countries into accepting its food safety standards as a tool to expand the market control of U.S. corporations. South Korea is the latest victim.

In June 2007, the United States and South Korea signed a free trade agreement (FTA) that now awaits ratification in the ROK National Assembly and the U.S. Congress. A pre-condition for negotiations was a commitment from South Korea to lift its ban on U.S. beef, which had gone into effect in 2003 after the discovery of a U.S. calf with mad-cow disease. In order to get the FTA talks rolling, South Korea’s former president Roh Moo Hyun partially lifted the ban, allowing boneless beef and meat from cattle aged under 30 months to reach Korean markets. However, subsequent shipments of U.S. beef have been quarantined and returned for containing bone fragments, including a beef shipment last July that contained an entire spine.

These discoveries in South Korea – coupled with more recent episodes such as a rat found last month in frozen vegetables imported into Korea from the United States and the release of a video showing abuse of downer cows at a Westland/Hallmark Meat Company slaughtering house that resulted in the largest recall of beef in U.S. history – have reinforced concerns within the Korean public. This would normally spell trouble for the pro-FTA lobby since Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) has said that he wouldn’t even entertain the FTA unless South Korea lifts its ban on U.S. beef. However, the U.S. meat industry, and its allies in the Bush administration, is lobbying Korea with all its might to lift the ban before week’s end.

“There is a lot of pent-up interest in the market,” said Assistant U.S. Trade Representative Wendy Cutler of these U.S. beef corporations. Although the new conservative president, Lee Myung-bak, visits Washington this week to affirm South Korea’s commitment to the FTA and the U.S.-ROK military alliance, he may not have enough votes in the National Assembly to dismantle Korea’s domestic health laws to accommodate U.S. corporate interests.

Beef in Context

The U.S. beef industry’s battle against Korean consumers is part of a larger corporate food safety agenda advanced increasingly through bilateral channels. The strategy is codified in terms like “science-based,” “equivalence,” and “harmonization”. Powerful countries are using bilateral agreements to compel weaker countries into accepting their food safety standards and expand the market control of their own corporations.

With Korea, the United States has been insisting that no free trade deal is possible unless Korea changes its food safety import regulations for beef, recognizes U.S. beef inspections as equivalent, and opens its market to cheap U.S. beef imports. Most Koreans are dead set against these U.S. demands: a recent poll found that 87% of Korean housewives believe American meat is “unsafe.” Koreans not only want to protect their local farmers, who will, with the implementation of the FTA, face competition from tariff-free subsidized U.S. beef imports. They are also justifiably concerned about the safety of U.S. meat, especially when it comes to BSE or Mad Cow Disease.

Korea, like many other countries, enacted a complete ban on U.S. beef when a case of BSE was detected in the United States in 2003. Ever since, the United States has pushed hard to regain valuable beef export markets in Korea and elsewhere through a twin process of defining its own BSE inspection system and getting the rest of the world to accept this system as safe. Not being able to convince authorities in key markets like Japan and Korea about the merits of its BSE control efforts, the United States has looked for leverage elsewhere, mainly with the World Animal Health Organization (OIE), the international standard setting body for animal health recognized by the WTO.

The U.S. strategy at the OIE has been to change the guidelines covering trade from countries with BSE so that a country’s status is based not on the presence of BSE but on a “scientific risk assessment” of the safeguards that a country adopts to keep BSE out of exports. The United States moved this process along in 2003 by creating a new status of “minimal risk” for countries exporting to the United States. It then successfully pushed for a resolution at the OIE in 2005, which was adopted in 2006, where the five original categories for classifying a country were reduced to three and modified into the new categories of “negligible BSE risk,” “controlled BSE risk,” and “undetermined BSE risk.” Moreover, where the OIE previously only ruled on a country’s claim to be BSE-free, now the OIE could rule on whether a country should be considered a “controlled risk”, greatly facilitating that country’s ability to export. At its May 2007 General Session in Paris, with Korean protestors outside in the streets, the OIE issued its first list of “controlled risk” counties, with the United States not surprisingly making the cut.

The United States immediately used this ruling from the OIE to push hard for the opening of markets to U.S. beef. “We will use this international validation to urge our trading partners to reopen export markets to the full spectrum of U.S. cattle and beef products,” said Mike Johanns, U.S. secretary of agriculture. “We will use every means available to us to ensure that countries rapidly take steps to align their requirements with international standards.”

Although the OIE ruling in no way forced it to change its regulations, Korea faced the added pressure of the FTA negotiations. It ultimately reopened its markets with the proviso, well within OIE guidelines, that the beef be free of specified risk material, such as bone fragments. When Korean authorities detected such bone fragments in the first three shipments of U.S. beef (as well as trace levels of dioxin exceeding approved levels in the third shipment), they rejected the meat. Then, in June 2007, Korea decided to suspend all export permits to U.S. suppliers when two shipments of beef products originating from Cargill and Tyson were exported to Korea without the necessary quarantine certificates. Rather than deal with the problem, U.S. beef corporations, backed by Washington, insist that Korea change its criteria on bone fragments and start letting U.S. beef in, bone fragments and all. Otherwise there would be no FTA.

Beef and Free Trade

Other countries have already signed away the right to block U.S. meat exports, not only for BSE concerns in beef but for a whole range of food safety and animal health concerns that afflict the U.S. meat industry. The U.S. meat industry has been very careful to insist that the FTAs cannot only deal with lowering tariffs; they have to also strip countries of their rights to define their own sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) standards in order for U.S. meat to get guaranteed market access. The big U.S. poultry companies have been particularly ferocious in this regard. For these companies, exports are critical because, with domestic demand mainly for white meat, they generate an enormous and growing surplus of chicken leg quarters (dark meat).

But most export markets refuse to take their chicken leg quarters because of food safety and animal health concerns, such as hormone and antibiotic residues, and because they undercut domestic producers with ridiculously low prices. So big U.S. poultry corporations like Tyson and Cargill look to the FTA processes as leverage to push open markets– by simultaneously reducing or eliminating tariffs and locking countries into U.S. food safety standards.

The FTA with Morocco set an early precedent. The country drastically reduced tariffs and then agreed to accept export certificates from U.S. inspectors “as the means for certifying compliance with standards on hormones, antibiotics, and other residues” for beef and poultry. Subsequently, under a separate SPS agreement within its FTA with the United States, Panama agreed to recognize the equivalence of U.S. meat inspections and the U.S. beef grading system, to grant access to all U.S. beef exports consistent with OIE standards, and to lift its formerly strict import certification and licensing requirements.

The CAFTA agreement, which is gradually opening Central American countries to tariff-free imports of chicken leg quarters from the United States., was another important victory for U.S. poultry corporations. Given the strong, politically-connected Central American poultry companies that had grown up under trade protections, the United States was particularly concerned that the openings on tariffs agreed to under the FTA would spark “a movement among Central American poultry producers to block entry of U.S. poultry and products through the use of sanitary technical barriers.”

Most of the SPS complaints coming from the United States concerning poultry are not new. El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica have long-standing zero tolerance policies on Salmonella, which effectively prohibits imports of raw poultry from the United States, where Salmonella is rampant in the poultry industry. Honduras also has strict policies on avian influenza that have raised the ire of the U.S. poultry industry. U.S. complaints about these measures being “arbitrary” and not based on science have not had much traction though, given that these countries are self-sufficient in poultry production. But the FTA negotiations changed the dynamic. The United States used a parallel working group on SPS to “leverage the impetus of active trade negotiations to seek difficult changes to the countries’ SPS regimes.” By way of this working group, all the countries agreed to “recognize the equivalence of the U.S. food safety and inspection system – eliminating the need for plant-by-plant inspection.”

The U.S.-Peru FTA was a particularly crushing win for corporate chicken. Sara Lilygren, vice president for federal government relations for Tyson Foods, called it “the best market access arrangements for poultry ever negotiated in a free trade agreement.” Tyson and other U.S. poultry corporations won immediate and expanding tariff-free market access for chicken leg quarters and a specific commitment from Peru to recognize both the U.S. system for determining disease status and the U.S. inspection system for poultry slaughter and processing facilities.

“In the past, U.S. poultry exports to Peru have been blocked by Peruvian regulators on grounds that the U.S. product allegedly posed a threat of avian influenza and Newcastle disease or even Salmonella,” said Tyson’s Lilygren. “Hopefully, the commitments that Peru has now made to respect decisions of U.S. animal health regulators will ensure that the U.S. industry will benefit immediately from the market access provisions of the agreement and will not have those benefits blocked by the imposition of non-tariffs barriers in the form of dubious SPS requirements.”

As a result, Peru and other countries that have signed similar agreements will have to accept the dumping of poor-quality U.S. meat into their markets. The impacts will be immediate and brutal for local industries, especially for the small producers. A few local companies may survive, by consolidating and expanding their operations internationally, such as the Multi Inversiones poultry group of Guatemala, which has expanded into neighboring countries and Brazil. While FTAs may conceivably give local poultry producers some access to U.S. markets, in practice the U.S. inspection system tends to block out all but the biggest. Only three poultry plants are certified for export to the U.S. in Chile, two in Costa Rica, and zero in El Salvador, Honduras, Guatemala, and Morocco. Poultry plants in Mexico, a large poultry producer sitting next door to the U.S. market, can only get approval to export processed poultry products slaughtered under federal inspection in the United States. Meanwhile, the big U.S. poultry companies are following-up on this new market access by buying up local producers and directly integrating them into their transnational production chains, as Cargill has recently done with the take over of two important poultry companies in Honduras and Nicaragua.

GM Food, Too

The Bush administration’s attack on Korea’s food safety standards through the FTA was not limited to beef. In a reported swap for Seoul easing its rules of origin for U.S. textile exports, Korea agreed to lower its domestic biosafety standards. The deal, signed on the sidelines of the final round of U.S.-Korea FTA negotiations in late March 2007, is called the U.S.-Korea “Memorandum of Understanding on Agricultural Biotechnology.” Immediately hailed as a great breakthrough by the Washington-based Biotechnology Industry Organization, the agreement took Koreans by surprise, generating angry reactions in the formal political arena, in the mass media, and on the streets..

The U.S.-Korea ag-biotech agreement obliges Korea to restrict its risk assessment of imported GM products for food, feed, or processing to their “intended” use. In other words, if local farmers sow GM maize kernels from the United States that were meant for cooking, the U.S. companies responsible for the transfer of the kernels are free of any liability. This is precisely how Mexico’s indigenous maize crop got contaminated. The agreement also commits Korea to act on its GM labeling laws in a “predictable” manner. This common aspect of most U.S. FTAs, which goes under the misleading label of “transparency,” in fact grants Washington the right to meddle in policy decisions in Seoul. Finally, Korea’s implementation of the UN Biosafety Protocol, which the United States refuses to sign, is bound to the terms of this bilateral agreement with Washington. In this case, as in other FTAs, the United States is exempt from the Protocol’s documentation requirements for the entry of GM crops.

With the ink on the agreement barely dry, American GM crops began to penetrate Korea’s food supply. Until recently, Korean GM laws, particularly the rules on labeling, had essentially shut GM imports out of the country’s food supply, except for some use in animal feed, soybean oil, and soy sauce (the latter two products deemed exempt from mandatory labeling requirements because their production processes are said to remove the GM proteins). But in February 2008, less than a year after the signing of the ag-biotech agreement and just three months after Korea ratified and brought into force the Biosafety Protocol, the Korean Corn Processing Industry Association purchased 697,000 metric tons of U.S. GM maize for shipment between April–August 2008: the first major shipment of GM maize destined for food use to arrive in Korea since the adoption of the GM labeling law in 2000. Similarly, Korean approvals of GM imports have skyrocketed since the U.S. agreement. By January 10, 2008, there were 58 living modified organisms (LMOs) approved for import as feed or food into Korea. One month later, the number had nearly doubled: 102 approvals, 70% of them from U.S. firms (Monsanto, DuPont, and Dow).

Korea is not the first country to cede its sovereign right to control biotech foods under pressure from U.S. corporations in bilateral negotiations. India and China both backed down from GM import restrictions after bilateral “discussions” with the United States. Thailand pulled back from strict GM labeling legislation in 2004 when the United States warned that the legislation would affect their FTA negotiations. More recently, U.S. corporations have called on the U.S. government to use the proposed FTA with Thailand to force it to start allowing for field testing of GMOs. The same goes for Malaysia, where U.S. corporations want the Malaysian government to back down from consideration of mandatory labeling of GM products as a prerequisite for the proposed U.S.-Malaysia FTA. ,

Battle for Food Sovereignty

The use of bilateral free trade agreements to rig food safety standards in favor of a rapidly concentrating global food industry is cause for concern — all the more so during a deepening world food crisis. To most people, food safety should have something to do with health, as well as cultural prerogatives. That agenda, however, has been hijacked. As tariffs and quotas are torn down under the mantra of trade liberalization, food safety is becoming a major offensive tool for industrial titans like the United States or Europe to not only get market access for exports but to reduce competition from imports (in the absence of tariff and quotas).

Equivalence, which all WTO members are supposed to implement, between different countries’ food safety standards doesn’t mean harmonizing up to higher standards. It means equivalence with those of the more powerful country, which frequently means harmonizing down to the lowest common denominator. The U.S.-Korea FTA bears this out dramatically.

Sad to say, food safety has become a bargaining chip in the struggle for corporate control. This raises an important challenge for the food sovereignty movement. Aside from some boycotts and recalls, real decision-making on food safety standards is not in the hands of ordinary people or even competent regulators. Instead, food safety is determined more and more in corporate boardrooms and trade negotiations. Perhaps the lessons being learned from different experiences fighting FTAs in different countries will lead to stronger campaigns to regain control over the issue of food safety within the larger battle for real food sovereignty.

Christine Ahn is a contributor to Foreign Policy In Focus, a policy analyst with the Korea Policy Institute, and a member of the Korean Americans for Fair Trade. GRAIN is an international non-governmental organization with 13 staff in nine countries spread across five continents to promote the sustainable management and use of agricultural biodiversity based on people’s control over genetic resources and local knowledge. GRAIN also collaborates with www.bilaterals.org and helped produce www.fightingftas.org.