01/18/2008 03:54 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

How About Law and Order on the Trade Front?

San Francisco, CA -- If I hire a couple of guys with automatic weapons, break into a garden in San Francisco, and take, at gun-point, fifty prize roses, I have committed a crime. If I drive those roses across the Bay Bridge to Oakland and sell them to Ace lumber, Ace lumber doesn't own them, and if it sells them suspecting I stole them, Ace lumber has also committed a crime.

If a logging contractor does the same thing in Sumatra, or Peru, and gets the wood to the US, they're home free. Same thing if they sell the logs in China and the mahogany ends up in furniture in Wal-Mart. Illegal trade is one of the huge stories being ignored by the mainstream media. More than half of all tropical deforestation is estimated to be the result of illegal logging (pdf), and deforestation is causing 20% of total global CO2 emissions.

But logs are not the only illegally traded goods. This Christmas we became aware that huge numbers of toys brought into the United States violated American and Chinese laws governing lead content. Imported pet food was also found to be adulterated, seafood was contaminated with illegal drugs, and people died from contaminated toothpaste. The problem, let's be clear, isn't China -- it's a business model in which importers seek to drive prices down to ever lower levels, and bear no responsibility for the safety of the resulting production processes, either in terms of environmental harm or health risks.

The Sierra Club's first response to this threat was to bring suit in California under one of the many laws these toxic imports violated: California's Prop 65. Now, in further response to this problem, the Sierra Club and United Steelworkers Blue-Green Alliance joined this week in a National Day of Action on Toxic Trade, in over 100 cities, calling for support of the U.S. Food and Product Responsibility Act. Introduced in the Senate by Sen.
Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) and in the House by Rep. Pete Visclosky (D-Ind.), this legislation would safeguard Americans against toxic food and products
by shifting the responsibility on to the backs of the companies producing
the goods and the importers importing them.

There's no reason that crossing an international border should turn theft into commerce, fencing into free trade. The courts have been our first line of defence so far -- next week the 9th Circuit will hear the appeal brought by the Sierra Club and the Teamsters of the Bush Administration's decision to allow trucks from Mexico to enter the US without complying with American clean air and safety standards. But it shouldn't just be up to the Courts; Congress can do something about this, and it ought to.