What has been dubbed ‘the mother of all food safety trade disputes’ began in the 1980s, when the EU banned use of certain growth hormones in livestock following safety fears. After the ban was extended to imports, the US erected a number of tit for tat trade barriers on foodstuffs from the EU.
In the twilight of the Bush administration the controls became more intense as 100 per cent tariffs were proposed on a raft of European goods, including Italian mineral water and certain meats. Roquefort cheese was particularly hard hit, with a 300 per cent tariff.
The US also mooted the possibility of rotating the list of products subject to retaliation, a possibility that “seriously alarmed” the Confederation of the Food and Drink Industries.
“This would have resulted in great economic damage to EU food and drink exports and made access to the US market completely unpredictable,” it said.
The agreement inked in Geneva on Wednesday night is seen as a major step forward as the rotating list will not materialise – even the items will only be struck off the retaliation list gradually and some products will “remain hostage” for another three years. In return, 20,000 tonnes more non-hormone treated beef can be exported by the US to the EU duty-free, rising to 45,000 tonnes after three years.
CIAA president Jean Martin said: “…Normal access to the US market for European products is now in sight.” He continued, “The European Food & Drink Industry has long awaited this settlement and now urges both sides to resolve the issue definitively”.
The EU food and drink industry exports to the US are valued at €10bn, making it the first foreign destination for products. But that figure could well have been higher: the CIAA says ten years of retaliation have had “severe consequences for many EU food producers.”
Also the agreement does not deal with the question of legitimacy. The EU ban on beef hormones was the subject of a WTO ruling last year, which found it to be unfounded under international trade rules as there is insufficient scientific evidence to support safety rules.
This, the CIAA said, “means that further US claims cannot be excluded in the future”.
Despite welcoming the progress, the CIAA said it is understandable that producers directly affected by the US measures find the current situation unacceptable.
The Société Roquefort has expressed disappointed that the 100 per cent tariff would continue for the next three years, despite the beef dispute having nothing to do with the Roquefort cheese industry.