Wednesday, May 18, 2005

"FREE" TRADE AND PUBLIC HEALTH


Yeah, beef is yummy. Excepting when said beef is all mixed up with cow spinal cord and nervous system tissue. Oops. Who wants to eat that?

Well, Mike Johanns, President Bush's Secretary of Agriculture, for one. Or at least he wants you to eat it. Why else would he push to throw open the border to Canadian cow imports when we still don't know how BSE arrived in Canada and what risks this might pose to the safety of our agro-food system?

Simple. Americans eat a lot of beef. But so do people in other countries (read as "major export industry"). Unfortunately, American firms aren't that good at growing cattle, but they are good at killing cows, chopping them up, and assembling the pieces in freezer packs for shipment to Japan. So if the companies can't import the cattle from Canada and elsewhere, there's nothing for them to chop up. They Canadians may wake up and say, "Hey, we can kill cows. We don't need those stinking Americans to do it for us." And, presto, no more beef export industry in the U.S. (Okay, in reality the food processing industry is highly monopolistic and integrated across North America. That's right Tyson/IBP, I'm talking about you. The likely effect, then, would be that the same firms would relocate slaughter and packaging facilities from the Great American Desert to the Great White North).

This story is a good illustration of how "free" trade is not free, but the outcome of contestation between different industrial groups within the political economy. One one side are domestic livestock producers. On the other side is the processing industry. Of course left outside this contest over trade policy are you and me: the glorious citizen-consumer meat eaters. We just get to clean the scraps from the plate.

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