TAFTA: Code Word 'Harmonization,' a Race to the Bottom or the Top?

Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) -- Part 1:
Preventing health and food safety standards from slipping

While everyone should celebrate the idea of economic and cultural cooperation between the European Union and the United States, some are voicing legitimate concerns that free trade negotiations for a Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a.k.a. TAFTA, may result in lowering food safety and public health standards in favor of advancing special trade interests.

It is imperative that any TTIP proposal should uphold the right to maintain existing food and public health policies, and the right to improve upon such policies in order to ensure that the highest standards of public safety are met.

Recent announcements by U.S. and the E.U. officials negotiating the TTIP, along with industry representatives, speak of the need to "harmonize" food safety, environmental and consumer protection standards. However, based on current trade agreements and rulings by trade bodies such as the World Trade Organization, terms such as "harmonization" or regulatory "convergence" or "coherence," while sounding rather sensible, have in practice resulted in setting a ceiling on standards. In other words, harmonization is code for low standards for food safety and public health and has perversely, restricted or prohibited countries from attaining higher standards that protect citizens.

For example, in June 2012, the WTO ruled that some provisions of U.S. country-of-origin meat labeling policy (COOL) were barriers to trade and violated product-related "technical regulation" limits set by the WTO. The labeling program was passed by Congress as part of the 2008 farm bill with the aim of ensuring that U.S. families could know where their food is coming from and thus make informed choices in their purchasing, and also to make it easier for health regulators to track food borne bacteria to its point of origin.

This binding WTO ruling means that Mexico and Canada may soon impose trade sanctions against the U.S. if it does not weaken or eliminate provisions of its country of origin labeling program in order to comply with WTO rules. Another example of how trade bodies can overturn domestic public health and safety policies, in 2011 the WTO ruled against aspects of the U.S. ban against the sale of candy- and other sweet-flavored cigarettes (which often attract children to smoking) contained in the U.S. Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act of 2009.

Unfortunately, the majority of binding and enforceable rulings of the WTO and those of other trade bodies such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) demonstrate a consistent pattern of lowering food, environmental, labor, or consumer safety standards in behest to trade agendas.

Trade could indeed be the vehicle through which societies are improved, jobs opportunities grown and environments strengthened. It's time for a new, open and transparent trade model where sovereign democracy is upheld and the interests of citizens are put above those of corporations.