WASHINGTON -- A group of lawmakers and safety advocates threw food into the fight over fast-tracking a giant Pacific trade bill Thursday, demanding that the White House reveal standards in the secret pact that they allege will have Americans eating poisonous imports from Asia.
"We come together today to say that, especially when it comes to the food we eat, and the food that we feed our children, we need to know and we have the right to know, what is being negotiated on our behalf," said Debbie Barker, international director of the environmental group Center for Food Safety.
The Trans-Pacific Partnership, being negotiated among the U.S. and 11 Pacific Rim countries that encompass 40 percent of the global economy, faces a contentious battle for approval by Congress, and would likely fail unless Congress first decides to give President Barack Obama fast-track authority that would ease passage of the deal.
But the specific text and terms of the Pacific pact have not been released to the public, and are still being negotiated in secret. Members of Congress can see the text, but only in a secure room where they can't take notes. They also cannot tell the public what they've seen.
But based on what they knew about the proposed deal and about past trade agreements, several members of Congress argued the TPP would take a food safety system that already fails, and make it worse -- particularly with two of the nations in the agreement, Vietnam and Malaysia. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 89 percent of global seafood production comes from Asia.
"Ninety-one percent of our seafood is already imported, but the Food and Drug Administration only has the resources to inspect about 2 percent," said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.), adding that even when inspectors stop tainted food, it's often repackaged or sent to another port.
Even with its small percentage of inspections, the FDA issued 650 import refusals for shipments from Vietnam and Malaysia in the last year, "due to adulteration, misbranding, and filth," DeLauro said.
TPP would make matters worse, the lawmakers and advocates argued, because it would boost food imports while doing nothing to increase inspections. Further, they contended that if U.S. standards were adequately enforced, the countries or companies affected could simply charge a trade violation, as has been the case in other trade deals where trade considerations trumped safety.
Barker pointed to case brought under the North American Free Trade Agreement by a U.S. company that made a gasoline additive that was banned in Canada. The firm argued that the law was "tantamount to expropriation," and Canada agreed to repeal its law and pay the Ethyl Corp. $13 million.
"The attorney for Ethyl said, ‘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 U.S.-based company loses profits, the company can claim damages under NAFTA,’" Barker said.
"We think this is a rather chilling statement, and it really gives one reason to pause, to really reconsider and reflect on really what could be at stake here," she added.
Barker also pointed to the push by Mexico and Canada in world trade courts to stop the United States from required country-of-origin labels saying where meat comes from.
But the lawmakers focused on the seafood industry, saying that Vietnam, in particular, was raising foul fish, adulterated with toxins and banned antibiotics.
"The whole goal of the TPP is to facilitate more trade," said Rep. Louise Slaughter (D-N.Y.). "Do we really want more of these products in our stores and on our tables? We need to stop the TPP for hundreds of reasons. Please put this one at the top. It affects every single one of us."
“These harmful products are already harming our markets. The TPP will limit our ability to stem the tide” and may actually increase the problem," said DeLauro.
A spokesman for United States Trade Representative Michael Froman, who is negotiating the deal, said in a statement the lawmakers and advocates were simply wrong, and the dispute mechanisms would not affect U.S. safety rules.
“TPP will require no changes to U.S. food safety laws or regulations," the USTR statement said. "Instead, the agreement will be an important tool to help improve food safety systems in other countries. We have already seen trade opponents’ claims on shrimp imports from Malaysia and Vietnam be proven false by the Washington Post’s independent fact checker. We hope that as discussion continues on this vital issue the focus will remain on substance and not on scare tactics.”
The statement referred to a fact-check blog that Delauro herself disputed, saying it looked at tariffs, not the standards she was talking about.
As for the lawmakers' demand that the food safety chapter of the deal be released so that the public can see it, the USTR refused, saying it will be made public once negotiations are complete, before it is signed.
“TPP negotiations are still ongoing and there is no final agreement," said a spokesman in a statement. "However, months before an agreement is even signed by the President, and many months before it is ever voted on, the entire agreement -- including this chapter -- will be public.”
The lawmakers were making their pitch now as Congress considers fast-track legislation, because if Obama wins that authority, he will be able to pass any deals through both chambers with an expedited process that allows no amendments and no filibusters -- only simple-majority votes. With that authority, it would be very difficult for opponents to stop the agreements.
The Senate started debate on fast-track Thursday, with passage possible as soon as next week.