A Lot Of Bologna

Want a hopeless marketing task? On your next trip to Italy, head off to Bologna and try to interest shopkeepers in selling some bologna of the type typically sold in the United States. To the residents of Bologna, bologna, the lunchmeat, is Mortadella. Mortadella, however – and virtually all pork products produced in Italy – has been banned from the United States since an outbreak of African swine fever in Italy in 1967.

The ban has now been lifted as long as the products don’t contain any ingredients from the Italian island of Sardinia, where African swine fever can still be found.

Following on the decision in 1989 to once again allow Parma hams into the United States, this is good news: Good news for American foodies who can once again sample one of their favorites. Good news for Americans of Italian descent who can once again eat an Old World treat and good news for importers and retailers who now have more to sell and, of course, good news for consumers who get an expanded range of choice.

The decision to lift the ban on Italian pork products is welcome, but its timing is worthy of attention. The truth is that there hasn’t been an outbreak of African swine fever in Italy for decades, and the ban was maintained due to a confluence of interests. The bureaucrats had rigorous rules that maintained these types of bans as long as a threat could be found anywhere in the country. So the existence of African swine fever in Sardinia, an island off the Tyrrhenian seas in the Mediterranean, meant that all pork products from Italy were banned. This would be like Europe refusing to import grapefruit from Florida because there are Mediterranean fruit flies in Hawaii.

American pork producers, who were happy to keep the U.S. market to themselves, encouraged this bureaucratic intransigence.

But the world is changing. Having won World Trade Organization (WTO) rulings defending its position on trade issues, such as bananas and the right to ship beef treated with hormones to Europe, the U.S. has been wearing the virtuous hat lately.

Up to now, the gist of these battles has been that countries can’t arbitrarily decide what to exclude from their markets. In the cases of bananas, they can’t exclude them from some countries just to favor others, and in the case of the hormone-treated beef, they can’t exclude it just because they want to, but instead must rely on good science to determine what is actually harmful. The European Union lost the hormone beef case at the WTO for the specific reason that a mere assertion or suspicion that hormone-treated beef is harmful is not sufficient cause to restrict a product on WTO rules. Instead, there must be actual scientific evidence that it is harmful.

It is a tough standard but probably justified because of the ease with which phytosanitary standards are manipulated by governments to protect domestic industry. The U.S. government never had to come out and say that it wants to protect U.S. pork producers and so impose tariffs or quotas or other things that would get us into a trade war. Instead, the U.S. could stand mournfully and say it is that darn African swine fever that forces us to deny ourselves of these delicious Italian pork products.

Now, of course, when the U.S. is beating the bushes demanding that other countries accept or reject food products based strictly on good science, the U.S. tries to tidy up its own record. Bologna is a tiny industry, with total U.S. consumption only around 332 million pounds of domestically produced bologna. All the sudden, it is much more important to get the Italians on our side in the hormone-treated beef case.

And the big issue floating in the background is GMOs – Genetically Modified Organisms – and particularly to make sure that Europe remains a market for U.S.-produced foodstuffs, much of which contain GMOs.

Recently, over 130 nations got together and adopted a global treaty to regulate trade in GMOs. These tense negotiations grafted together a compromise that will, in the end, satisfy no one. More importantly, the agreement was intentionally vague – which means it is a recipe for future disputes. Most importantly, it is not clear whether these new rules are supposed to supersede or be superseded by the treaty that established the WTO.

Perhaps most disturbing is that the new treaty is an outgrowth of the Convention on Biological Diversity. However, since the United States Senate has never ratified the treaty, the U.S. is not a party to it and thus is not a party to this new bio-safety protocol, as the new agreement is called.

However, the Clinton administration has declared that the U.S. will abide by this treaty, which the Senate has refused to ratify. In our system of government, the President doesn’t get to make treaties all by himself; treaties have to be ratified by the Senate.

To say that a treaty, which has not been ratified, is somehow going to be followed is to usurp powers for the President not contemplated in the Constitution. There is a lot of bologna in that idea, as well.