Food Safety on the Butcher’s Block

by Christine Ahn

, by Bilaterals

On April 11, the Center for Disease Control (CDC) released a report that found that of the national efforts to improve U.S. food safety, “none of the targets were reached in 2007.” According to the CDC, 76 million Americans — one in four — come down with food poisoning every year. Among the most common is E. coli, a byproduct of the system of industrialized animal agribusiness. Americans have a common perception that the problem stems from food coming from outside the country — from China, say, or Mexico. Instead, it’s our food that’s the problem.

Instead of cleaning up its own act, the American meat industry has shifted responsibility to the consumer — not just in the United States, but also in countries where U.S. meat is exported. The United States is using bilateral trade agreements to arm-twist weaker countries into accepting its food safety standards as a tool to expand the market control of U.S. corporations. South Korea is the latest victim.

In June 2007, the United States and South Korea signed a free trade agreement (FTA) that now awaits ratification in the ROK National Assembly and the U.S. Congress. A pre-condition for negotiations was a commitment from South Korea to lift its ban on U.S. beef, which had gone into effect in 2003 after the discovery of a U.S. calf with mad-cow disease. In order to get the FTA talks rolling, South Korea’s former president Roh Moo Hyun partially lifted the ban, allowing boneless beef and meat from cattle aged under 30 months to reach Korean markets. However, subsequent shipments of U.S. beef have been quarantined and returned for containing bone fragments, including a beef shipment last July that contained an entire spine.

These discoveries in South Korea — coupled with more recent episodes such as a rat found last month in frozen vegetables imported into Korea from the United States and the release of a video showing abuse of downer cows at a Westland/Hallmark Meat Company slaughtering house that resulted in the largest recall of beef in U.S. history — have reinforced concerns within the Korean public. This would normally spell trouble for the pro-FTA lobby since Senate Finance Committee Chairman Max Baucus (D-Montana) has said that he wouldn’t even entertain the FTA unless South Korea lifts its ban on U.S. beef. However, the U.S. meat industry, and its allies in the Bush administration, is lobbying Korea with all its might to lift the ban before week’s end.