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Trans-Pacific Partnership Should Raise Concerns About Safety and Quality of Imported Foods

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would effectively outsource domestic food inspection and makes other changes that disserves the health and safety of the American public.

Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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It is hard to disagree with former national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft’s endorsement of the U.S.-led Trans-Pacific Partnership: By greatly cutting tariff and nontariff barriers to trade, the 12-member agreement would spur U.S. exports of mechanical and electrical equipment, advanced materials, pharmaceuticals and many other goods.

As Scowcroft’s biographer, I find it a bit awkward to openly disagree with a man for whom I have great respect and with whom I usually agree. But when it comes to eliminating restrictions on agricultural exports and food safety, the Trans-Pacific Partnership raises some serious concerns.

The Partnership blends nationalism and internationalism in a manner consistent with Scowcroft’s view, which is shared by many others, that international agreements can be win-win situations. American commercial, political and security interests are best furthered when other countries agree with the U.S. on economic policy, also seek to prevent or resolve political disputes, and want to join U.S.-led military alliances and wartime coalitions.

On many issues, our country’s interests are reconcilable with those of other countries. In those circumstances, our interests are best advanced when foreign leaders buy in to American goals — assuming the U.S. makes only minor concessions or the prospective benefits of an agreement outweigh the costs.

But there are problems.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership would effectively outsource domestic food inspection: “The exporting Party shall, when available and subject to its law, regulations, and policies provide a summary of the risk or safety assessment.” That means if an importing government wanted to inspect food, test food safety, or impose warnings on unhealthful contents, it could be interpreted as an unnecessary technical barrier to trade.

Similarly, label information on the country of origin could be taken as restricting food exports in violation of partnership rules. But because the member countries do not have the same standards on what constitutes reasonably safe and healthy food, the agreement would promote a race to the bottom.

Also, the Trans-Pacific Partnership’s sanction of the ability of a company to sue national governments under the Investor-State Dispute Settlement process is concerning. The rule states that “a mechanism to provide foreign investors with the right to access an international tribunal if they believe actions taken by a host government breach its investment obligations.” This gives for-profit companies’ pride-of-place. It reverses the norm that the “polluter pays” and puts the burden on governments instead.

Likewise, regulations on food additives, animal drugs, pesticides or herbicides, and the products of recombinant DNA technology — GMOs, or transgenic organisms — could be taken by food companies as violating partnership rules.

Furthermore, the “Rapid Response Mechanism” that allows exporting countries to dispute export restrictions so as to guarantee that “imports are carried out without undue delay” and ensure that food inspections are “limited to what is reasonable and necessary, and what is rationally related to the available science” makes it difficult for importing countries, and thus their citizens and legislatures, to challenge the food imports of questionable safety.

Simply put, the Rapid Response Mechanism favors the continuation of unimpeded trade flows over food safety and public health.

Yet there are justified concerns about some food exports, such as how farmed fish are raised, the safety of some food ingredients, acceptable levels of the kind and quality of pesticides or herbicides in use, and transgenic plants and animals that may be “generally regarded as safe,” notwithstanding limited or mixed scientific evidence or the fact that scientific research is predominantly funded by vested interests, whether directly or indirectly.

And on organic products, the Trans-Pacific Partnership merely exhorts parties to exchange information and establish acceptable standards. “Each Party is encouraged to … exchange information on matters that relate to organic production, certification of organic products” and to “cooperate with other Parties to develop, improve and strengthen international guidelines.”

Although each party is “encouraged” to explain its regulations, organic standards are self-enforced by the exporting company or government.

I agree with Scowcroft that there is much to admire about the Trans-Pacific Partnership, but the agreement as it is currently written disserves the health and safety of the American public and potentially those of other partnering countries. Lawmakers would be wise to address these concerns in any version that does ultimately come across their desks.

Bartholomew Sparrow is a professor of government at The University of Texas at Austin.

A version of this op-ed appeared in the Houston Chronicle, San Antonio Express News, Dallas Morning News, Corpus Christi Caller Times and The Rivard Report.

To view more op-eds from Texas Perspectives, click here.

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Texas Perspectives is a wire-style service produced by The University of Texas at Austin that is intended to provide media outlets with meaningful and thoughtful opinion columns (op-eds) on a variety of topics and current events. Authors are faculty members and staffers at UT Austin who work with University Communications to craft columns that adhere to journalistic best practices and Associated Press style guidelines. The University of Texas at Austin offers these opinion articles for publication at no charge. Columns appearing on the service and this webpage represent the views of the authors, not of The University of Texas at Austin.

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