Free to be poisoned

Observations on trade

Not everyone was disappointed when the Doha round of trade talks got bogged down in endless wrangling. After all, the United States and the European Union were pushing developing countries to liberalise their economies still further, while refusing to abolish their own agricultural subsidies. Better no trade deal than a bad one, or so we thought.

We little imagined that new arrangements, able to do even greater harm to the developing world, would fill the vacuum left by the failure of the multilateral talks. Yet that is what has happened. The EU and the US are busy negotiating dozens of bilateral agreements that force developing countries to make concessions that would be unthinkable under World Trade Organisation arrangements.

South Korea is a case in point. Since 2003, its government has banned imports of American beef, following the discovery of a cow infected with BSE in the US. Washington retaliated by declaring it would not sign a free-trade agreement with the country unless the ban was lifted. The US insists that South Korea recognises US beef inspections as "equivalent" to its own, thus opening its market to cheap US beef imports.

The South Korean public is opposed. Concern grew earlier this year after the US Department of Agriculture imposed the biggest meat recall in the country's history after a Californian beef packer was found to have infringed rules for handling "downers", the name given to cows too ill to walk. Under US regulations, these cows must be checked by a vet before their meat can enter the food supply, yet workers were caught on video forcing sick animals into the slaughterhouse. The video, made by a campaigning group, was shown around the world, including in South Korea.

In April, the South Korean president, Lee Myung-bak, visited Camp David for a summit with President Bush. The main item on the agenda was a free-trade agreement, signed between the two countries last June and now awaiting ratification by the South Korean National Assembly and the US Congress. Members of Congress told President Lee they would not approve the pact until the beef import issue was resolved. On 21 April, the South Korean president, still in the US, announced a change in his country's sanitary rules, dismantling the safety measures.

If South Korea, one of the most powerful of the new economies, is vulnerable to such pressure, it will come as no surprise that smaller countries have been even more susceptible to duress. US poultry producers have been ferocious in their lobbying to get Washington to use FTA deals to open up more markets for their chickens. Exports are important for these companies, because domestic demand is largely for white meat, so they have a large - and growing - surplus of dark meat (leg quarters). But many countries refuse to take these chicken parts, because of concerns about the level of hormones and antibiotic residues they contain. Because they are very cheap, they undercut local poultry farmers.

Central America is the latest region to be bullied. El Salvador, Honduras and Costa Rica have long taken a tough line on salmonella, which means that imports of raw poultry from the US, where the bacterium is rampant, are effectively prohibited. The US government has railed against this as "arbitrary".

Until recently, the countries were able to resist pressure, since the region is self-sufficient in poultry. But Cafta, the region's free-trade agreement with the US, is changing this; US corporations have got their way, with Cafta countries reluctantly agreeing to "recognise the equivalence of the US food safety and inspection system, eliminating the need for plant-by-plant inspection".

Yet food poisoning is rife in the US, with the Centres for Disease Control and Prevention stating that 76 million Americans - about one in four - get food poisoning each year. Some experts believe that much of this problem can be laid at the door of the US's industrialised animal agribusiness.

A proposal gaining support in the wake of the global food crisis is the promotion of local food production. This would have the added advantage of leaving governments free to draw up their own food safety regulations, and reducing food miles - all changes urgently needed. But, for the moment, the world is heading in exactly the opposite direction.