A few years ago the anti-globalization movement seemed, to much of mainstream America, a fringe concern. Capitalism and free trade are, after all, our national religion. The protesters who disrupted global trade summits in Seattle and Washington, DC, had little sympathy from outlet shoppers jamming big box stores in Middle America. But things have changed. Wal-Mart stories featuring abusive labor practices shone a spotlight on the down side of low prices. And, more recently, the spate of reports about the poison fruits of free trade with China have hit American consumers in the gut.
"In order to achieve modernization, people will go to any ends to earn money, to advance their interest, leaving behind morality, humanity and even a little bit of compassion, let alone the law or regulations," economic professor Hu Jindou says in an article on Chinese child slavery in the June 21 edition of the New York Times. The article concerns the hundreds of people, including pre-teen children, found to be working as slaves at a brick-making factory in Shanxi Province. Children are routinely pressed into service in China's toy factories. "Work-study" programs ship schoolchildren from poor provinces to factories where they are worked from early morning until late at night without pay.
And then there are the poisonous products--the killer toothpaste containing diethylene glycol found at a Dollar Store in Miami. The questionably "organic" herbs and food products. William Hubbard, the former deputy commissioner of the FDA who now runs an organization called Coalition for a Stronger FDA told NPR about the Chinese food shipments FDA officials turn back at ports after labeling them as "filthy"--that's the term of art for smelly, decomposing, chemical-laden and otherwise obviously unfit food. On NPR, Hubbard described how an inspector found an herbal tea factory where herbal tea was processed by driving trucks over it: "'To speed up the drying process, they would lay the tea leaves out on a huge warehouse floor and drive trucks over them so that the exhaust would more rapidly dry the leaves out,' Hubbard says. 'And the problem there is that the Chinese use leaded gasoline, so they were essentially spewing the lead over all these leaves.'"
And, "That lead-contaminated herbal tea would only be caught by FDA inspectors at the border if they knew to look for it, Hubbard says."
As food imports to our country have exploded, with China leading the way, the FDA's food inspection unit is shrinking. Hubbard estimates that 1 percent of food imports are actually inspected by FDA officials. And funding for food inspection has shrunk from half to one-quarter of the agency's budget since he started his career in the 1970s.
Meanwhile, China is cornering the market on many food products.
Lead-contaminated multivitamins from China are part of what NPR terms "the hidden price of cheap goods." And if the FDA is casting a weak net after these poisons, consumers don't have much ability to protect themselves, either. Food manufacturers are not even required to disclose where they get ingredients.
Our political leaders talk a lot about protecting America from terrorist attacks. Meanwhile, we are increasingly vulnerable to the effects of lax regulation and unfettered free trade. We need protection not just from suicide bombers and jihadists, but from business interests willing to push the products of an abused work force and contaminated facilities. The more shocking stories we read about our unsafe food supply, the more mainstream these issues become.
Ruth Conniff covers national politics for The Progressive and is a voice of The Progressive on many TV and radio programs.
© 2007 The Progressive