A GROWING number of critics say that White House efforts to expand free trade could seriously undermine important laws that protect health, safety, and the environment in the United States. Rodney Leonard, executive director of the Community Nutrition Institute, charges that President Bush ``is using trade agreements to overturn federal laws'' on health and the environment.
Consumer activist Ralph Nader says the president's free-trade proposals threaten American sovereignty and could ``erode or block past and future health and safety rights in the United States.''
Alex Hittle, international coordinator for Friends of the Earth, says free-trade agreements with Mexico and other nations could wipe out US environmental programs, such as the one that labels canned tuna ``Dolphin Safe.''
These concerns are shared by some leading members of Congress, including Rep. Richard Gephardt (D) of Missouri, the House majority leader.
On May 10, Mr. Gephardt and four other congressmen sent a letter to US Trade Representative Carla Hills to ask whether US laws on pesticides, food additives, drugs, and medical devices could be abrogated by new trade agreements.
The disquiet arises, in part, from the Uruguay Round world trade negotiations which, among other things, deal with ``harmonization.'' US officials support efforts to level, or harmonize, international health and safety regulations by requiring that they all be based on ``sound scientific principles.''
However, the Uruguay Round's draft agreement opens national laws on food safety and several other areas to international challenges. Any country whose rules exceed international norms would have to prove that its regulations were based on ``sound science.''
Critics charge the White House is trying to use trade agreements to deregulate the US economy through the back door. Mr. Nader says: ``In the area of food safety, for example, the administration proposed that US pesticide standards be harmonized in accordance with those established by the Rome-based Codex Alimentarius [a United Nations organization].''
Nader says: ``That proposal would have increased the levels of permissible DDT residues on fruits and vegetables purchased by US consumers 10 to 50 times.'' Such a proposal ``makes a mockery'' of White House claims that it will uphold US environmental laws in worldwide trade talks, as well as those with Mexico, he says.
Consumer groups are alarmed. They say 40 percent of US health and safety laws exceed international standards. Only 16 percent are lower.
Nader claims that ``the current [Bush] proposal would probably prevent restrictions on substances such as Alar and Bovine Growth Hormone'' because of the difficulty of proving any danger based on ``sound science.'' He says: ``Think of the tobacco industry's insistence that there is no scientific evidence that cigarettes are a danger to health.''
Gephardt suggests that the White House change its negotiating strategy. In his letter to Ambassador Hills, he says: ``In our view, any health and safety law that is stronger than international standards should be presumed to be valid, and the burden of proof of its invalidity should be on the country challenging it.''
Gephardt notes that scientific tests aren't always adequate to defend US laws. For example, the ``Delaney clause,'' which bans all suspected carcinogenic food and color additives, might be difficult to defend, but Congress has resisted all efforts to change it.
``Will the administration vigorously defend every such law against any international challenge?'' Gephardt asks. ``What assurances can you provide us that US health and safety laws will not be declared trade barriers under this standard?''
A US trade official, who asked not to be identified by name, bemoans the uproar on Capitol Hill.
``There is a tremendous amount of misapprehension, concern, and misinformation on this issue,'' he says. ``We obviously have not done a good job of articulating our position.''
The official expresses surprise that Congress would suspect federal agencies of failing to defend US interests. ``After all, we're all on the same team,'' he says.
US negotiators say the health portions of the Uruguay draft represent a breakthrough. For the first time, it would correct a flaw that allowed some nations and regions (like Europe) to ban products (like US meat) under the guise of health standards.
Now the rule will be: If your standards are tougher than international norms, you must offer scientific justification.
As for US laws, ``our regulatory agencies are quite confident about the scientific underpinnings ... and seem willing to put us up to that scrutiny,'' the trade official says. ``Our standards have more scientific underpinning than virtually any other country.''
The official observes that current trade laws represent a ``giant loophole'' which is blocking US exports, while permitting foreign goods to pour into the US.
But what about the potential loss of US sovereignty mentioned by Nader?
``Any time you participate in an international agreement and bind yourself to rules, you give up a little bit of sovereignty,'' the trade official concedes. ``But other nations must, too, and we feel that is a good trade for us.''