The EU lawmakers voted by 650 to 10 to approve proposals that would allow the US and Canada to boost their imports of hormone-free beef into the EU by 28,200 to 48,200 tonnes, while the EU is allowed to keep its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef.
The beef hormone dispute has affected transatlantic trade relations since 1988 when the EU, on health grounds, banned imports of beef treated with certain growth-promoting hormones.
In 1996, the US and Canada, which were worst affected by the ban, challenged it under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) dispute settlement system and were subsequently authorized to impose trade sanctions on EU produce.
But as part of the ongoing talks with the EU, the US and Canada have already suspended duties on previously ‘blacklisted’ products originating in member states such as Roquefort cheese, chocolates, jams and fresh truffles - worth over US $250m at today's prices.
Ban on EU beef could be lifted
The resolution of the beef trade war comes on the back of the publication of a draft regulation in Washington last week whereby the US has proposed bringing its rules on import of bovine products in line with international criteria.
If the proposal is approved, it would remove the longstanding ban on EU beef imports, imposed in 1997 in the wake of the BSE crisis.
The report from the US Department of Agriculture (USDA) notes that as scientific research and international guidelines indicate boneless beef does not present a risk in terms of BSE, it is urging the adoption of the criteria the World Organization for Animal Health (OIE) uses to identify a country’s BSE risk status.
Ireland, the UK and the Netherlands, noted the USDA, are the three countries that meet all other health requirements and could begin to export beef to the US sooner than other EU members if and when the ban is lifted.
President of the Irish Farmers Association, John Bryan, said if the ban was lifted, Irish beef could gain a foothold in the largest beef market in the world, with the US a net importer of beef - one million tonnes a year - following the diversification of cattle-feeding grains to biofuels.
But he stressed that the process to re-open the US market to Irish beef would need a major diplomatic and political push at national and EU level.
“Unacceptable” obstacle to trade
Stephen Rossides, director of the British Meat Processors Association (BMPA), told this publication that potential lifting of the ban on EU beef by the US is “way beyond time and the lack of adherence to international rules on BSE risk criteria by the US is an unacceptable obstacle to trade.”
While the US was never a market for UK beef, he said an alignment of US bovine import rules would help eradicate any lingering notions that EU beef is inferior. “The UK beef sector is looking to broaden current export markets but whether the US will provide additional opportunities is something we will determine at a future date,” added Rossides.
Peter Hardwick, head of trade development for EBLEX, the organisation for the beef and sheep meat industry in England, agreed with Rossides, saying:
“The crucial point to remember is that the US is saying it is going to look at the EU’s BSE status. There is no lifting of the ban as such at this stage although clearly a positive outcome may lead to a lifting of restrictions.”
Many of the UK’s potential trading partners “take their lead from the US. Lifting of restrictions and recognition of equivalent status will certainly help in negotiations with countries in the Far East, for example,” added Hardwick.
However, he stressed, that all plants wanting to export would still have to go through lengthy and complex USDA approval. “At present, no UK plants are USDA-approved,” said the EBLEX spokesperson.
But Peter Garbutt, chief livestock adviser at the UK’s National Farmers’ Union (NFU), claims the move “would open up further export opportunities for UK producers”