EU-US beef import extension eases transatlantic dispute

By Annie-Rose Harrison-Dunn

- Last updated on GMT

Question marks still loom over hormone treatment of cattle
Question marks still loom over hormone treatment of cattle

Related tags International trade European union Eu

A two year extension of US zero-duty access to the EU beef market is the latest step in the longest running trade dispute dividing Europe and America.

This latest step will stretch the 2009 agreement which permits the importation of non-hormone-treated beef into the EU until August 2015.

The dispute was sparked by an EU ban on US hormone treated beef in the late 1980s on the grounds of public health. The situation has since been muddied by a series of retaliatory US sanctions on EU products such as French cheese and fired by US suspicions that the ban was in fact an attempt to prevent lower cost US producers from competing in the EU market.

Trade between the EU and the US represents a third of all global trade and this extension has been seen as an effort to show Europe is committed to strengthening that link. The duty-free tariff rate quota for non-treated beef covers some 45,000 tons per year.

In the year following the original pact, US beef imports were valued at around $200m, up 300% from the previous year.

"Before the memorandum of understanding was signed, the EU's beef market had been largely closed for far too long,"​ U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman said.

Cultural attitudes

The dispute has been underpinned by different cultural attitudes towards agricultural practices seen elsewhere with GM food, high-tech farming approaches, chlorine washing of poultry and husbandry methods.

The EU’s ban was rejected by the World Trade Organization in 1998 due to a lack of evidence conclusively proving the harmful effects of consumption of hormone treated meat. In response the EU applied the precautionary principle, a step possible when there is insufficient evidence to conclusively dispel or confirm fears of a health risk.

In report 178/2002, The European Parliament and The Council said: “In those specific circumstances where a risk to life or health exists but scientific uncertainty persists, the precautionary principle provides a mechanism for determining risk management measures or other actions in order to ensure the high level of health protection chosen in the Community.”

In a report back in 2007, the European Food Safety Authority said: “New data indicated an association between the large-scale beef cattle production using hormones, and undesirable effects in wild fish species living in rivers that are exposed to waste water originating from these farms.”

Yet this alone is not adequate grounds for a ban since it does not present an environmental threat within the EU where the cattle is not raised in this way. 

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