A Cautionary Tale
UE News, March, 1999
In November 1993, in the face of serious public opposition and much
scientific uncertainty, the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approved use of the
genetically altered rBGH hormone on U.S. dairy cows. Monsanto Corp., producer of rBGH,
reported that use of this hormone on cows increases their milk production by 10 percent.
But Monsanto also admitted to the FDA that this hormone caused udder infections and
painful foot disorders in cows, and reduced their life span. However, Monsanto assured the
FDA, the hormone would not harm people.
Monsanto won this battle in the U.S., but it was a hollow victory. People
(that is, consumers) are not going to allow themselves to be used as guinea pigs in what
amounts to a huge national study on the human safety of this chemical. So consumers have
been avoiding rBGH milk wherever it is sold, and sales of the treated milk have remained
Recently our friends and neighbors (and sister and brother unionists) in
Canada have taken further action against this milk. In January 1999, after eight years of
study and review, the Canadian government refused to approve rBGH hormone for use
on dairy herds in Canada.
This came after much infighting and pressure on the Canadian government
and government scientists and officials. Some Canadian health officials accused Monsanto
of trying to bribe them, and higher level government officials of trying to pressure them.
As important as this struggle has been in the U.S. and Canada, why should
it be of special concern to working people? Because of what happened next.
WHO ARE THESE PEOPLE?
As expected, Monsanto is appealing the decision to the higher levels in
the Canadian government. But also, for the first time I am aware of, this decision of a
sovereign government has been appealed to an agency of the World Health Organization
(WHO). Monsanto is asking the WHO to overturn Canadas ban on rBGH.
The WHO meets in Rome this summer, and if it declares that rBGH is safe
for human use, then under World Trade Organization rules Canada and all other member
nations (including the U.S.) would lose their right to ban this product in
their own country.
The WHO decision will be made by an organization I had never heard of
before, the Codex Alimentarius. This group, a WHO agency is "widely
perceived to be dominated not by public-spirited health specialists but by scientists
aligned with the interests of transnational corporations," according to Peter
Montague, editor of Rachels Environmental and Health Weekly. Montague goes on
to say, "At bottom, this is what free trade is about freeing
transnational corporations from control by nation states."
THREAT OF NAFTA
While this has not happened yet for health and safety rules in the U.S.,
this is exactly what could be done under NAFTA if the U.S. passes strong worker protection
rules, such as a strong ergonomics standard. After all, some of our worker protection
standards under OSHA are ahead of those in other parts of the world. (In Europe health and
safety agencies give more power to government inspectors and occupational physicians, but
dont write such specific regulations as we do in the U.S.)
These concerns, plus the loss in U.S. jobs which followed, led to the
labor movements strong opposition to NAFTA. But NAFTA has worked well for U.S.-based
multinational corporations and its Clinton Administration corporate allies, who are
looking ahead to more such efforts. High on corporate agendas is approval of the Multilateral
Agreement on Investment (MAI) and the Free Trade Agreement of the
This legislation would take away our rights to determine the economic and
health policies of our own country, and give them to multinational boards and agencies,
over which we have little or no control. Such schemes would seem to have very little to do
with our daily lives, but as NAFTA has shown us, they can significantly and directly
affect our lives.
And as the rBGH controversy unfolds, it is clear that the bills passed so
far have given multinationals and other national governments powers in reserve over our
health and safety which they havent used yet. If we and our unions dont
continue to fight against this "free trade" legislation, passage will further
undermine our lives and futures.
(Thanks to Rachels Environmental and Health Weekly for much
information used in this article. Back issues are available on the Web at http://www.rachel.org.)