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May 3, 2007

Aha! Now, There's The Rub

Tony Soltero

Legend has it that, in 1906, President Theodore Roosevelt happened to be munching on a few sausage links one morning while perusing Upton Sinclair's earthshaking new novel, "The Jungle." As he leafed through the chapter that described the process of sausage-making in graphic detail, the president, revulsed by what he was reading, spit out his breakfast and threw it in the trash.

Whether the story is true or apocryphal, "The Jungle" did exert a major impact on the president and Congress, which - soon after the novel's publication - passed the Pure Food and Drug Act, which established the Food and Drug Administration.

So, for the first time in the nation's history, Americans could be comfortable in the knowledge that the food they ate for dinner wasn't going to kill them or make them sick, no longer being at the mercy of the meatpacking industry's food-safety practices, such as they were.

The new government oversight might have inconvenienced a few players in the industry a little, but the ensuing public health benefits overwhelmed such objections.

Today, 100 years later, we all simply assume that the food we eat carries no hidden toxins or poisons, because we take for granted that our government is doing its job and looking out for public safety - as it generally has over the last century. It never even crosses our minds that the steaks we're grilling on Saturday might be lethal - again - thanks to the good work of the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) over the decades. We don't give it a second thought.

But recent events have raised more than a few concerns that there might be some cracks in the dam. The recent spate of pet-food recalls, coming at the heels of the poisoning of thousands of dogs and cats across the nation, have provoked a good amount of anger among citizens, who have been tragically forced to re-evaluate the assumptions about the safety of their pets' food.

And now questions are being raised about a few pockets of the human food supply, with new reports from Indiana indicating that chickens in 38 poultry farms might have been given contaminated feed. As anyone who has read Eric Schlosser's disturbing expose "Fast Food Nation" can attest, this is hardly an isolated instance.

Right now much of the blame for these problems is being laid at the feet of China, one of our agricultural suppliers, and a country which, like most of the third world, is notoriously lax about food safety. But it would be foolish to assume that we just now realized that China inspects its food exports with the same level of detail that we inspect our junk mail.

In a nutshell, this pet-food scandal has provided us with a preview of what can happen - and what will keep happening - when we sign blind trade agreements with countries that don't live up to our regulatory standards.

Regulatory oversight doesn't emerge in a vacuum; it results from specific reactions to specific problems that ensue from an over-reliance of faith in the "marketplace." China might be posting double-digit economic growth every year; but if this "growth" is being accomplished on the backs of sweatshop labor, coerced abortions of baby girls, environmental degradation, and a lax regulatory climate that recalls the Chicago meatpackers of the 1890's, then such "growth" is empty and hollow indeed, perhaps even counterproductive.

And there's no reason for Americans to let China's problems seep into our own borders and compromise a hundred years of high American standards. Of course, given the chronic underfunding of the USDA and other regulatory agencies by the Bush administration, and its propensity to staff these agencies with ideologues instead of professionals, our standards are already converging on China's with alarming speed.

When fair-trade advocates argue against globalization, this is what they're talking about. We can choose to hold other countries to our own labor, environmental, and regulatory standards before we make them full trading partners, or we can choose to shed our own standards and meet them at their level.

If we choose the latter, as we did when we included Mexico in the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) without first insisting that they firm up their regulatory standards and make a real effort to get rid of their institutionalized corruption, then we have no one to blame but ourselves when a hundred years of peace-of-mind regarding our food safety (and in many other areas) begins to fray.

Globalization, in and of itself, is not an inherently bad thing. Nations need to trade with each other, and strong commercial relationships between countries can serve as a strong bulwark against the development of destructive military hostilities.

But to chant the word like a magic mantra and plunge into globalization for its own sake without doing anything to adjust for the disparities among nations is a recipe for a slow, steep slide downward in our standard of living. There's a reason the European Union is thinking about it a long time before it allows Turkey into its club. We might do well to heed that lesson and apply it to our own experience.

It has been a century since we've had to worry about our meat being tainted as a matter of course. We don't need to revisit that era, and the best way to ensure that doesn't happen is to undertake a tough re-evaluation of our trade policy and ask ourselves if "efficiency" is worth wondering whether every meal might be our last.

Teddy Roosevelt certainly didn't want to live that way.

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