Unfair Trade: Corporate 'Rights' Challenge Health Choices

The feds recently halted plans to heavily regulate vitamin supplements and herbal remedies -- and Canadians won a skirmish in the health wars. There's no time to rest on laurels, though. Around the globe, other battles rage on, pitting citizens' safety and choice against corporate "rights". Take a look at Europe's beef about beef, for example. This August, the World Trade Organization (WTO) upheld an earlier ruling that a continent-wide beef ban was "an unfair restriction on trade". The appeal decision overturns European Union health regulations that have blocked hormone-treated U.S. beef for the past eight years. The beef ban followed widespread consumer concern about a possible link between chemicals found in food and a sharp decline in male fertility rates. But the WTO determined that a half-dozen growth hormones commonly injected into American cattle are safe when accumulated in the muscles and fat of adults and children.The decision is the first to enforce a rule that domestic trade restrictions based on food safety must be supported by scientific evidence acceptable to the WTO. Consumers' concerns or suspicions aren't enough. The ruling also opens the way for other health standards worldwide to be overturned. The next consumer-driven regulation to fall will likely again affect Europe. A proposed ban on the import of pesticide-treated, genetically-altered corn and soybeans from the U.S. is poised to be aborted by the WTO decision. Meanwhile, in Canada, the Ethyl Corporation has used provisions under NAFTA to file a $251-million grievance against the feds for acting to ban the gasoline additive MMT. This crucial case will determine whether investors citing "rights" granted under NAFTA can overturn government health and environmental safeguards.In early April, 1997, Ottawa moved to ban MMT, which is used to reduce engine knocking. The feds suggested the manganese-based additive poses a significant public health concern. In the U.S., the Environmental Protection Agency unsuccessfully pushed to ban MMT in all formulated gasoline. California prohibits the additive. But Ethyl -- the company that invented leaded gasoline -- claims Canada's ban violates NAFTA. Ethyl wants the restriction lifted, along with $251 million in compensation from Canadian taxpayers for the loss of its "good reputation" and Sarnia, Ontario, production facility. NAFTA grants corporations the legal standing needed to sue governments for imposing health, environmental and safety standards. Those corporate "rights" are presently being strengthened in negotiations for a much more sweeping trade agreement, the Multilateral Agreement on Investment. If Ethyl wins compensation and NAFTA proves stronger than Canadian lawmakers, the threat of similar claims could make Ottawa shy about passing further regulations.According to Michelle Sforza of Preamble, a Washington D.C.-based public interest group, Ethyl's claim that legislative debate over MMT damaged the company's reputation amounts to "a SLAPP suit against the Canadian Parliament". NAFTA tribunal hearings on the MMT ban will be conducted by just three people meeting in secret. Records of their deliberations will not be made public -- but their decision will supersede Canadian law. If Ethyl wins, Canadians could end up thanking NAFTA for more noxious smog as we drive home with our hormone-injected, genetically altered, pesticide-treated groceries. Legal action can cut two ways, though. Health Minister Allan Rock surely wouldn't say so, but his announcement that the federal government will rethink its attack on natural medicines could have been prompted in part by a desire to stay out of court.On June 27, 1997, the group Freedom of Choice in Health served notice of a legal challenge to the federal government's definition of many vitamin and herbal therapies as "drugs". The suit also aimed to stop the feds from driving health food stores out of business by imposing prohibitive annual licensing and product identification costs. Now Rock has backed off, and the case is on hold. And another battle for consumer choice on health was won in Europe this year.Final ratification of a German proposal to turn vitamin and mineral supplements into pharmacy-dispensed "drugs" was sent back to the drawing board in June. The move was supported by Canadian delegate Mary Cheney of the federal health ministry. "In our view development of the proposal should cease," Cheney told the assembled health and trade representatives. "In our view, consideration of this proposal could interfere with the development of international practices."The next meeting on the matter is planned for September, 1998, in Bonn, Germany. Expect German pharmaceutical companies to renew their push for strict controls on natural supplements. "Are you prepared to be a slave on the global plantation ruled by the multinational corporations?" asks John Hammell, a longtime "health freedom" lobbyist. "I'm not. I spit in their faces."

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