Where does science end, and politics begin? For international-trade practitioners, the question always seems to be lurking in the background, especially when it comes to fights over seafood. Take the current widespread concerns over perceived health risks associated with Chinese seafood products like shrimp and catfish. When it comes to these two particular Chinese exports, politics never seems far away. This is because the politically influential American shrimp and catfish industries complain bitterly that they can’t compete on the proverbial “level playing field” with the Asian seafood items, which, they insist, are both unsafe to eat and “unfairly” priced too low. Because the issues are complex and involved unrelated areas of expertise, when questions are raised in the press as to whether Chinese imports are safe, it’s often difficult for the public to know if there are perhaps other agendas in play that go beyond food safety — agendas involving financial interests in keeping Chinese seafood out of U.S. markets. For that matter, how do reporters know?
Usually, they don’t, really. Reporters who cover food safety inhabit different worlds in newsrooms from their colleagues who are assigned to international trade beats, who in turn don’t pretend much in-depth knowledge of public health issues. Consequently, the dots that might show the connections between the two different journalistic turfs often aren’t connected. Consider a Dec.15 article that raised questions about the safety of Chinese shrimp that was written by Wall Street Journal reporter Jane Zhang, who diligently covers the food-safety beat. Ms. Zhang’s report was the usual Journal quality: solid, accurate, and fair, at least as far as it went. (Full disclosure: I am a contributor to the editorial page of the Wall Street Journal Asia and other Dow Jones publications.) But some digging beyond the headline offers a rare glimpse beyond narrow health issues, into a world where science meets the politics.
In the present case, the story begins with a high-powered Washington lawyer who, wearing his hat as a former high-ranking official of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration, has raised serious questions about possible safety risks associated with Chinese shrimp and other food and drug products in the Journal and other news organizations. But while readers would not know it — except, perhaps, a very small handful who follow trade politics closely — the same lawyer’s firm has been raking in money that most Americans would consider serious, by lobbying to curtail the imports of Chinese shrimp into the U.S. A coincidence? Perhaps. But further digging suggests still other coincidences.
The lawyer is Benjamin England, a former senior FDA health-inspection expert who is special counsel to Jones Walker Waechter Poitevent Carrere & Denegre. Jones Walker is Louisiana’s largest law firm, and is also a lobby powerhouse with an office in Washington, D.C. The firm is well-known for its affiliation with Robert Livingston, a former Republican chairman of the powerful House appropriations committee — and now, a prominent lobbyist for the Southern Shrimp Alliance, an eight-state coalition of domestic shrimp producers that is at war with China and other Asian and Latin American shrimp-exporting countries. The SSA’s fight with the foreigners is being waged on both fronts: anti-dumping, and health warnings. Mr. England says that he does not have any involvement with the shrimp trade litigation, and there is no reason not to take his statement at face value. Still, the coincidences are worth examining as they illustrate how, in Washington, D.C., the worlds of science and politics seem never too far apart.