Vol 1 - No. 2

NAFTA! What is it (and do I care?)?

In our last newsletter, we mentioned NAFTA – the North American Free Trade Agreement, now over 7 years old. We indicated that it caused us some real problems in ensuring food safety when importing foods from other NAFTA countries. One country in particular. Here’s the whole background story, in summary form, about why we’re concerned:

At the end of Desert Storm, President George Bush (pater) announced that the “New World Order” was here. NAFTA is a part of what he meant by the New World Order. Let’s see what that means to a significant amount of our food supply . . 


NAFTA meshes with the new World Trade Organization, its Court of International Trade and all the other U.N. trade organizations. These new entities are designed to eventually create seamless trade rules for the whole world, a seemingly great idea. NAFTA is our first taste of implementation. Are they doing what they said?

After all, my mother used to say, “What you do speaks so loudly I can’t hear what you say.” Or, “the proof of the pudding’s in the eating.” But, enough trite phrases.

  Let’s see what NAFTA does from a food safety standpoint. A course description from a Harvard Law School curriculum brochure speaks thusly of NAFTA’s Article 717: Control, Inspection and Approval Procedures.

“The parties are required to compete control or inspection procedures as expeditiously as possible and with regard to such procedures treat all like goods equivalently regardless of origin. Specific guidelines are provided in this Article relating to such procedures, i.e., information to be published, requirements for responsible administrative body and necessary criteria.”

What this “equivalently” standard has done in practice is to reduce our food safety standards to the lowest common denominator. The USDA was hit in 1994. The FDA survived until Pres. Clinton’s 1997 Food Safety Act. Now both agencies are equally limited by equivalency standards. What’s the result? Well, the U.S. and Canada truly have practical equivalency and have had for years. Our other NAFTA participant is Mexico. True equivalency? Let’s find out . . . . .


NAFTA’s implementing legislation made substantial amendments to U.S. meat, poultry and live animal inspection laws to permit importation from NAFTA countries, which do not comply with U.S. food safety laws. The USDA’s FSIS therefore only “reinspects” a small sampling of imported meat and poultry to monitor the effectiveness of the exporting nation’s pesticide residue testing. A couple of years ago, the USDA had 74 import inspectors “inspecting” nearly 2.4 billion pounds of imported meat & poultry annually at 100+ active locations. Each inspector therefore “inspected” about 600,000 pounds of meat a week! Yeah, sure they did! And the USDA doesn’t check for pesticides or unapproved drugs; they can’t check for metals residue in the meat – even if it’s reported! Why? No inspectors available to investigate. Getting the picture yet?? NAFTA does not require member countries to maintain even a minimum level of food safety standards. Standards higher than those set by the Codex Alimentarius Committee in Rome (the U.N. food laws organization) are presumed to constitute illegal trade barriers. Remember the World Trade Organization (WTO) and it’s Court? Guess what? We have little sovereign control left over what we require for imported food safety. The WTO’s Court of International Trade (CIT) is the new judicial control over our imported food safety standards. We aren’t! The CIT is now our “imported foods Supreme Court” and it certainly isn’t in Washington, D.C. Seeking the lowest common denominator is now the rule! The third world beckons us to join.


Strawberries, head lettuce and carrots from Mexico have pesticide residue violation (not rejection, just violation) rates of 18.4%, 15.6% and 12.3% respectively. And that’s only on the fruits and produce that’s actually inspected! Strawberries imported from Mexico are 96% of all our strawberry imports.

According to our Center for Disease Control and Prevention, “We are now importing 30 billion tons of food a year . . . These imported foods are an increasing proportion of our diet and often come from developing countries where food hygiene and basic sanitation are less advanced.” (The writer has consulted in agri-aquaculture in Mexico – field crops, shrimp, etc. and will agree this accurately describes all but the largest agricultural and fishing coop operations there. In many instances, there is no available local sanitation or hygiene infrastructure.)


According to Mexican Minister of Health, Sr. Jose Luis Flores L., “Food safety is in the hands of people who desperately require training in basic food safety and sanitation practices.” Prof. Eduardo Fernandez Escartin of the University of Queretaro says, “We have industries possessing facilities that produce foods using the most modern technologies and performing with very good hygiene standards.” True. He also says “however, the same products may be produced under primitive conditions which ignore even the most fundamental sanitary practices.” I’ve also found this to be true. Guess what? Products from both types of sources are often packed and shipped, mixed together, by food consolidators or brokers! Since NAFTA started, imports of carrots have grown 175%, strawberries 58%, peppers 84%, beans 60% and melons 101%. Wash all your veggies & fruit! Thoroughly!



All NAFTA food safety inspections involve inspecting transport vehicles and their food cargo at the border. Thereafter, the foods spread all over the U.S. and transit into Canada, which has its own inspection problems somewhat similar to ours. The border is the only “choke point”, so that’s the location, which interests us the most.


At the Otay Mesa border crossing (California entry) 2,000 to 2,500 trucks cross each day. Four to five times more than in 1990.  Other than random spot checks and “block busts” of 12 to 15 trucks, forget inspection! Referring to the “inspection” process, Sam Longanecker, USDA Supervisor says it’s “like having dinner without reservations” and Joyce Henderson of U.S. Customs says “It’s not container by container. We can’t do container by container all day long.” Remember our last newsletter? The inspection jobs doggone near impossible!


How much trouble are we in?

In CPC International, Inc. vs. U.S. (July 8, 1996), Slip Op. 96-106, the Court of International Trade overruled the U.S. Customs regarding the manner in which it was interpreting the NAFTA marking rules. (Note that the U.S. was sued in a court outside of the U.S. This is a loss of our sovereign control, ceded by a treaty.)

The WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade states that when the WTO’s members develop and institute voluntary and mandatory product standards and when they set procedures to determine if a product meets the standards, they must not discriminate against imported products and must avoid creating unnecessary obstacles to international trade. (Here, it depends on what the meaning of “is” is!) The TBT Agreement affects all technical regulations, which are not included in the parallel WTO’s Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement such as quality, labeling, packaging and product content. The Agreement encourages members:

1)     To accept other members' standards as equivalent and

2)     To use international standards and work toward harmonization of standards and procedures. Lowest common denominator again?


The foregoing will give you a solid idea of why the FDA and USDA can’t give you the guarantee you’re used to for the safety of any foods coming in under NAFTA. They want to and try hard, but they can’t. And state inspectors certainly can’t cope with these volumes either. You can plan that cross-border meats, fish and shellfish, vegetables and fruits will remain essentially uninspected.  The USDA, FDA and states have neither the time (under NAFTA) nor the needed personnel. Not to worry, they’ve been subjected to “equivalent” inspections before crossing into the U.S., haven’t they?    J   We merely “reinspect”  – occasionally.                                                                             No real protection here!   L   You’re essentially on your own!

Again, we emphasize that you should buy your range-fed proteins from local farms and ranches and disinfect and wash all your fruits and veggies thoroughly!



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