Is the WTO’s UnCOOL Ruling a Glimpse of Sovereignty Loss Under TPP?

(3BL Media/Justmean) - There are a number of important difference between humans and cattle, and one of them is the fact that humans know what they are eating. Not just whether its oats or hay, but also where it was grown and what company was responsible for growing it.

The latest ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO), which intends to nullify the Country of Origin Labeling law (COOL), will apparently lessen that distinction. The decision was the final action in a series of suits and appeals that took place under the Investor State Dispute Settlement (ISDS) clause contained within the North American Free Trade Agreement, otherwise known as NAFTA.

Trade representatives from Canada and Mexico both filed suit under NAFTA to have the law, which was developed in 2008, in response to food safety concerns, overturned on the basis that it was cutting into sales of their beef in the US market. That was exactly the intent of the law, which was part of the Farm Bill, in response to significant outbreaks of mad cow disease in Canada. The labeling allowed consumers to make an informed choice. But apparently, in the world of free trade, you can’t have laws that cut into sales of your trading partners, even if those laws protect, workers, the environment, or public safety.

Under NAFTA, the US has two choices: to repeal the food safety law and leave Americans without the right to know what country their meat came from, or to pay substantial retaliatory tariffs on our own agricultural exports to these countries.

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack has already gone on the record saying that there is no additional regulatory fix for COOL that would both be consistent with U.S. law and satisfy the WTO. The USDA has already modified the law in response to the initial suit, but the WTO has now rejected the modified version.

Rep. Michael Conaway (R-TX), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, apparently far more concerned with agricultural exports than public safety, is calling for the immediate repeal of the law. Supporters of the repeal say that COOL was more about marketing than about food safety and was clearly a barrier to trade. But a number legislators including Senator Jon Tester, a cattle farmer himself, and representatives Rosa de Lauro and Peter DeFazio were at a press event today, along with the Center for Food Safety, Food and Water Watch, and Consumers Union to strenuously disagree with that assessment.

At root is the idea, perpetrated by free trade supporters, that these trade agreements could not undermine US legal protections, which was clearly contradicted by today’s action.

This was not the first example either. Mexican trucks and drivers are not as carefully inspected, licensed or regulated as they are here in the US. Out of concern for safety on American roads, a law was passed banning Mexican trucks. This led to punitive tariffs on American exports. Today Mexican trucks are traveling American roads under a limited pilot program.

Of course, the elephant in the room, throughout all of this is the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), for which President Obama is asking fast track approval. That means Congress cannot modify or amend the agreement at all; they can simply vote yes or no.

He’s betting that they won’t vote against it because there is so much money at stake, for corporations and investors.

But the point that was clearly made by Representative DeFazio was that consumer protections regarding things like public safety, labor and the environment will be far weaker under TPP than they were under NAFTA. While NAFTA’s ISDS process allows governments to bring suit against one another if they feel that certain laws are unfairly restricting trade, TPP will allow any company to bring suit for the same reason.

The fact that literally hundreds of corporations gave input to the secret agreement has made many people uncomfortable. The contents are still being kept secret and anybody leaking them can go to jail. Michael Wesser of Politico viewed the agreement, as a “cleared advisor,” and while he can’t tell us what it said, “I can tell you that Elizabeth Warren is right about her criticism of the trade deal. We should be very concerned about what's hidden in this trade deal.”

Piecing together what we know, this sounds a lot like a race to the bottom, where a company trying to enter the market with a lower cost product, can claim that US regulations are raising his costs and is now able to sue. The rulings are made by secret tribunal and cannot be appealed. The words “greediest common denominator” come to mind.

While Elizabeth Warren has come out swinging against the measure, Hillary Clinton is more measured in her response. Still, according to her spokesman, Nick Merrill, “She will be watching closely to see what is being done to crack down on currency manipulation, improve labor rights, protect the environment and health, promote transparency and open new opportunities for our small businesses to export overseas. As she warned in her book Hard Choices, we shouldn’t be giving special rights to corporations at the expense of workers and consumers.”

Image credit: czFredle_: Flickr Creative Commons