Meat, ‘Free Trade’ and Democracy: As Goes South Korea, So Went Missouri (2008)

By Jane Anne Morris

In the Spring of 2008, tens of thousands of South Koreans held candlelight vigils every day for over a month to protest being forced to accept beef from the United States. The US government claims that barring our beef is an illegal “trade barrier.”

This isn’t the first time the US has resorted to international bullying to force people to take our meat. In 1996, the European Union (EU) banned imports of US artificial hormone-fed beef for public health reasons. A challenge from the US convinced the World Trade Organization (WTO) to brand the EU policy a “free trade” violation.

You’ve got to wonder what those South Koreans think might be wrong with US beef. (I’ll give it away—it is a justified fear that the US does not take sufficient precautions against “mad cow disease”—think “downers.”) But my concern here is not the meat but the mechanism.

You might also ruminate on why forcing a country (or community) to import things it clearly doesn’t want to import is called “free trade.” The shortest definition of “free trade” is “forced trade”: communities (or countries) are forced to import stuff they think is dangerous or otherwise objectionable, and export stuff (such as water and other resources) that they want to keep at home. Such matters far transcend the notion of mere “trade.” What’s at stake is no less than self-governance and democracy.

The scraps of self-governance that South Koreans are struggling to retain have already been stripped from, say, Missouri. Those protesters in Seoul (and others around the world under draconian “free trade” regimens) are going through something that has been happening in the US for well over a century.

Passing laws to protect citizens from the possible dangers of incoming meat has long been a concern of governments. And for decades, states in the US did just that. But starting in the 1870s, the Supreme Court, acting in the interests and at the behest of corporate meat purveyors, used the Constitution’s “commerce clause” to rationalize a domestic “free trade” zone in the US.

That meant that protective state laws like these had to go.

Missouri. Fearing the spread of “Spanish fever” in cattle, in 1872 the Missouri legislature passed a law severely restricting import of Texas cattle into the state. The Supreme Court declared the law a “trade barrier”—unconstitutional on commerce clause grounds.

Minnesota. In 1889 Minnesota passed a law that required that meat sold as human food come from animals inspected in Minnesota before slaughter. It was declared unconstitutional under the commerce clause.

Virginia. In 1890 Virginia passed a law requiring inspection of meat that came from animals slaughtered more than 100 miles from where the meat was sold. It was found unconstitutional on commerce clause grounds.

State laws—and not just ones about meat—adapted for local conditions, concerns, and preferences, were routinely rejected as “trade barriers.” Eventually Congress established federal regulatory authorities (often sloppier on standards and enforcement) that helped a few large corporations dominate the national market. As the power of federal regulatory agencies waxed, the influence of both states and small businesses waned.

Much state and local power has been stripped, but states still attempt to do better than the lax and selectively enforced federal standards. But if they step out of line, the US’s own trade tribunal (our “free trade” enforcer)—the Supreme Court—steps in. In 1967, for instance, an Oregon law requiring country-of-origin labels on meat was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court because it purportedly interfered with interstate commerce.

Current global corporatization efforts use the Supreme Court’s tried-and-true techniques ratcheted up one level of generality. The issues and reasoning are so similar, that you could take old Supreme Court cases, scratch out phrases like “Spanish fever” and substitute “mad cow disease,” and use them for WTO decisions.

But since we know the arguments well, and understand that the issue is democracy and no mere matter of trade or commerce, we might as well simultaneously challenge both the domestic and the international versions of Forced Trade.


This article was first published in The Progressive Populist in 2008.