WASHINGTON -- A short provision tucked into the 2,009-page government spending bill will remove labels telling consumers where their beef and pork comes from, but it will reveal something else. Lawmakers and food safety advocates warn that the one simple measure highlights how looming trade deals can undermine U.S. laws.
The provision was written into the so-called omnibus bill in response to a World Trade Organization ruling, which found that past measures to require country-of-origin labels on meat unfairly discriminated against beef and pork from Mexico and Canada.
The idea behind the earlier law was to help consumers make better informed decisions by telling them where meat was bred, raised and slaughtered. But the WTO declared that such labeling constituted unfavorable treatment of imported meat. Early this month, the organization said Canada and Mexico were entitled to levy $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports coming into their markets.
Repeal of the labeling law fixes the retaliatory tariff threat. House Speaker Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) hailed the repeal, listing it among his party's top priorities.
But other lawmakers said in a conference call Wednesday that Congress' move shows the potential problems with pending trade deals such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
"The TPP contains mechanisms that are similar" to the WTO's trade dispute court, said Rep. Rosa DeLauro (D-Conn.). "We should expect similar challenges to our food and drug safety regulations, environmental protection and other consumer safeguards that will now be at risk of challenges."
The TPP would create free-trade ties among a dozen Pacific Rim nations, and all would have access to the dispute resolution mechanisms contained in the 5,600-page treaty.
"It gives more foreign nations, like Vietnam and Malaysia, additional power to undercut and suppress U.S. laws that they don't like," DeLauro said.
When President Barack Obama signs the TPP (as he's said he will), Congress will consider it under fast-track procedures that bar lawmakers from amending the deal. They can only give it a simple up-or-down vote.
"This is just gutting our ability to protect our own citizens," said Rep. Tim Ryan (D-Ohio). "This is a perfect example of how these trade agreements that are primarily written by global corporations, global interests, are more concerned with profits than the safety of our citizens."
There is nothing that food-labeling supporters can do to change the provision in the must-pass omnibus bill, but Ryan said they can use it to raise awareness about pending deals such as the TPP and a separate massive agreement in the works with Europe.
"We need a grassroots effort across the country that starts to prioritize these consumer protections, these food safety issues, these environmental issues, and move them to the top of the political agenda here in the country, or we're going to continue to get these kinds of trade agreements that will allow these other countries to put us in this position," Ryan said.
The U.S. Trade Representative opposed the labeling complaints brought by Mexico and Canada. Despite the loss before the WTO, the trade office has repeatedly downplayed the prospects of similar impacts from the TPP and other deals. Other supporters of trade pacts have pointed out that the deals themselves do not require U.S. laws to be changed -- they simply give other countries the right to raise tariffs in retaliation for non-compliance.
Ryan said the fact that the United States is indeed changing its laws shows that supporters of such deals are wrong.
"This really is the slippery slope, and now this trade agreement is really going to exacerbate these issues," he said.
Obama notified Congress of his intent to sign the TPP last month. There is a 90-day review period before the president actually signs the deal and submits it to Congress.
The omnibus spending bill is expected to pass by the end of the week.