Jumping Through Trade Barrier Hoops

By Steve Kopperud, Policy Directions, Inc.

Early this year, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) very quietly created a new job within the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) Veterinary Services division, that of a “farm animal welfare coordinator.” It isn’t the creation of this job that’s necessarily interesting. On its face, much good could come from recognition by USDA of the superiority of U.S. animal handling and well-being.

However, the job is a whole horse of a different color.

The mere creation of this job implies much about this administration’s attitude about trade and non-tariff trade barrier (NTB) challenges. I say “implies” because this administration says all the right things about “healthy trade” and “strong global markets,” but has put very little action behind those words. It also illustrates yet again that this administration is out of touch with mainstream, conventional agriculture and agribusiness.

First, to put the new APHIS gig in context, understand USDA has no statutory authority to regulate or set standards for on-farm animal production or handling practices. The federal Animal Welfare Act (AWA), which APHIS administers, specifically exempts both the raising of animals for food and fiber as well as research to enhance those endeavors. APHIS’ Animal Care Program oversees animals used in biomedical research, teaching, education, and entertainment, and folks who buy and sell such animals. As close as APHIS gets to farm animals is the regulation of those animals when they’re used in medical research. Once an animal gets off the truck at the slaughter plant, Food Safety and Inspection Service inspectors take over.

So, what’s the job description for the new “farm animal welfare coordinator?” As explained to me by senior APHIS staff, President Barack Obama’s administration anticipates that over time, more global trading partners may decide to use NTBs to keep U.S. goods out of their respective markets. One favorite method of achieving this protectionism is to single out a production or processing practice, impugn the safety or humaneness thereof, and use that as the basis for the NTB. Think European hormones in beef, Asian markets refusing to take rendered fats and oils over bovine spongiform encephalopathy fears, or the more recent Russian refusal to take U.S. chicken because of chlorine use in processing by the U.S. industry. It’s important to note none of the examples just given have one shred of science or fact to substantiate the action taken. This is all about protecting domestic production, markets, and, oh yeah, politics.

This new slot at vet services is all about making our folks jump through the hoops set up by foreign governments. The new guy at APHIS is supposed to create a “voluntary certification service” of which farmers and ranchers can avail themselves to prove to a foreign government that whatever production practice makes said government nervous isn’t used on the U.S. farm. So, if Lichtenstein – and I’m making this up now – decides it won’t accept meat or rendered products from animals forced to face east and wear red blankets, then the new APHIS program will be available for farmers to get official proof their animals faced west wearing blue blankets. It’s kind of an extension of the Agricultural Marketing Service’s (AMS) process verified program – the department makes no “judgment” as to the requirements of the program; all USDA does is charge a fee to go out and determine if a farmer can do whatever it is your process demands, and is the whole thing auditable.

What’s troubling here is the disconnect between USDA’s science side – that would be APHIS – and the trade policy side of USDA and the U.S. Special Trade Representative. When I first heard the program described, my comment was I hope this “voluntary certification” won’t even be considered until the last U.S. trade negotiator has drawn his or her last breath, and I hope this is an option of last resort, not first choice. This is the kind of move by an administration that sends all the wrong signals to trading partners, and implies surrender before the first shot is fired in any trade battle.

When I asked if the United States would retaliate in kind – as in refuse to accept meat, dairy, or eggs from countries where animals are raised in “free-range” or “open systems” given we’ve got mountains of data to show such animals carry heavier loads of microbial contamination, and not to put too fine a point on it, who the heck knows what the beasts ate – I got a blank stare in return. When I asked if we’d retaliate against other products, as in refusing to take Asian electronics or European specialty foods, that stare turned into a glare.

Europe has pushed this kind of NTB authority for decades. Called “the fourth hurdle” or “fourth protocol,” the European Union (EU) has tried unsuccessfully through the last few rounds of General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade, or GATT, negotiations to get the global trade community to allow World Trade Organization members to be able to set up NTBs based on “consumer concerns” or similar reasons. This translates to trade barriers based on pretty much whatever you want to put in place; you only need claim your prohibition is based on fretful consumers. The United States has consistently opposed this EU move – going back to before President Ronald Reagan’s administration.

For instance, given the prevalence of ill-advised and politically motivated animal rights directives across Europe when it comes to farm animal care, it’s conceivable the EU, or any one of its members, could prohibit any pork product from an animal born of a mother who was housed in a gestation stall, or refuse to take any eggs or egg products from hens raised in cages. Heck, given the goofiness of the Europeans on genetically modified ingredients and foods, they could extend that paranoia to a prohibition on any processed food containing these same animal ingredients based on the fundamental “concern” over the original on-farm production practice.

So, as nuts as it may sound, what if that pig you just rendered or those processing leftovers you just cooked up came from animals wantonly abused on farm, as in they were not allowed to run free in an Eden-like organic world? How could the United States certify the commingled rendered products derived from animals from different farms and different packing plants? And what of that restaurant grease?

This is just one of a number of small things that when taken together begin to indicate a larger body of evidence. Recently, it was announced the United States would begin reviewing European food safety programs and regulations to see if there were actions that could translate to the U.S. Food and Drug Administration considering its “critical drug” list to match that of the World Health Organization, which is pretty much the EU list.

I can see where arbitrary difference for the sake of difference makes no sense, and that to the extent practical, consistency among nations on standards and such need not be the hobgoblin of little minds. However, to even consider placating protectionist actions such as NTBs based on an on-farm production practice is at best naïve, and at worst, surrender.

Administration policy on such things should stick to Obama’s promise that when it comes to such struggles, his White House will follow “the best available science and the rule of law.” Industry needs to be assured the government will do battle on trade issues that threaten to undermine domestic industry, not create programs that inadvertently or intentionally force our producers and processors to adopt practices that our scientists tells us are wrong, our experience tells us is not in the animal or the producer/processor’s best interest, and that we’ve successfully defended against in our own Congress.

View from Washington – June 2010 RENDER | back