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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 quite small.

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.


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 Canada’s 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 Rachel’s 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."


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 don’t 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 movement’s 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 Americas.

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 haven’t used yet. If we and our unions don’t continue to fight against this "free trade" legislation, passage will further undermine our lives and futures.

(Thanks to Rachel’s Environmental and Health Weekly for much information used in this article. Back issues are available on the Web at

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