Although there is heated debate about the fate of fast track—or Trade Promotion Authority—and the pending Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a little-discussed aspect is how trade pacts affect the food we eat, and the food we feed our children. That’s why many concerned citizens and government leaders such as Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.) are calling for more transparency when it comes to food and trade.  Especially when it comes to the food we eat every day, we need to know, and have the right to know, what is being negotiated on our behalf. 

Promoters of these trade provisions tell us not to worry, and that fears about potential impacts are overblown. But the fears are not theoretical. Unfortunately, past trade agreements, via extrajudicial, legally binding systems, have demonstrated that such agreements have already compromised our right to know where our food comes from and what’s in our food.  

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Recently, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the U.S. country-of-origin-labeling program for meat, also known as COOL, posed an illegal trade barrier.  COOL, passed by Congress as a provision of the 2008 Farm Bill (and implemented in 2013), requires that meat labels in supermarkets indicate where livestock was born, raised, and slaughtered. Essentially, the WTO overruled Congressional authority and if the United States does not eliminate the offending provisions of COOL, Canada (the primary plaintiff) will impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. meat, orange juice, wine, and other high-value products. 

This WTO case is an example of how trade rules have stripped down our public health and food safety standards via a dispute resolution system that allows member nation-states to sue one another over domestic policies that are believed to inhibit trade. Alarmingly, the TPP’s investor-state provision would go even a step further and allow corporations to directly sue countries for policies that they believe impede profits, including potential future profits. 

An early NAFTA investor-state case illustrates why it is not unreasonable to imagine how this mechanism could be used to challenge food safety standards. Indeed, when Canada settled a NAFTA case with U.S.-based corporation Ethyl, which sued the country for its ban on the gasoline additive MMT, a known neurotoxin, an attorney for the corporation commented, “It wouldn’t matter if a substance was liquid plutonium destined for a child’s breakfast cereal. If the government bans a product and a company loses profits, the company can claim damages under NAFTA.” 

Is this fear-mongering about potential impacts that trade agreements can have on our food?  Hardly. Unlike negotiating terms of trade for a car part or sheets of aluminum, trade rules on food affect each of us every day. We believe that people will not swallow trade policies that can threaten food safety and high standards. We need an open, transparent process to protect the integrity of food systems and protect citizens.

Barker is International Program director for the Center for Food Safety, a national non-profit public interest and environmental advocacy organization working to protect human health and the environment.