Trade Wars, Round 2: Where's the Beef?

August 04, 1999

Mark Weisbrot
Boston Globe, August 4, 1999

Knight-Ridder/Tribune Media Services, August 2, 1999
Houston Chronicle
, August 5, 1999

Should countries have the right to set health and safety standards for the food that their citizens eat? Should they be allowed to exclude foreign-produced foods that don’t meet national standards? Or should these questions be decided by the World Trade Organization?

Like it or not, these issues are being decided right now. In the latest trade dispute between the world’s two largest trading partners, our government last week placed sanctions worth about $117 million on European goods.  The purpose of the sanctions is to force the Europeans to import American beef that is raised with growth hormones.

Ordinarily this decision to place 100 percent tariffs on French truffles, foie gras, and other delicacies that most of us have never tasted would violate our international trade agreements. But in this case the US has the backing of the World Trade Organization, a 134-nation body that was created four years ago to negotiate and govern world trade. The WTO has ruled that Europe’s ban on hormone-treated beef is illegal, and it authorized the US to impose retaliatory trade sanctions against the European Union.

Consider the arguments: the Europeans don’t allow beef that is treated with growth hormones to be sold in their markets, regardless of where it is produced. They just don’t think it is all that safe to eat. But most US beef is in fact treated with these hormones. So our government, at the request of the beef industry, filed a complaint at the WTO, arguing that this ban was an unfair restriction on trade.

The rules of the WTO say that any health or environmental standard that affects trade must be supported by scientific evidence. So the WTO appointed a three-judge panel, which decided in March 1997 that there was not enough scientific evidence to justify Europe’s ban on hormone-treated beef.

Two months ago an independent panel of scientists, assigned by the European Commission to consider these questions, reached a different conclusion. They found that one of the six hormones commonly found in beef is a “complete carcinogen.” For the other five, they concluded that further study would be needed– although anyone reading the 142-page report would undoubtedly wonder why we allow these drugs to be pumped into our own livestock in the United States.

We probably wouldn’t– especially for consumption by those most susceptible to the effects of the hormones, such as children and pregnant women– if most people actually knew what they were eating. But there are no labeling requirements for these extra ingredients in your hamburger.

Regardless of how one assesses the scientific evidence, shouldn’t the Europeans be allowed to err on the side of caution if they so choose? Most people would say yes. This case is particularly worrisome because everyone agrees that the law against hormone-treated beef was designed to protect Europe’s consumers, not its domestic cattle industry. And the law applies without discrimination to both domestic and foreign producers. Yet the WTO insists that an unaccountable, three-judge panel, meeting in secret, can overturn a European law– simply because it has an adverse impact on trade.

Clearly the tail (trade) is wagging the dog here, and this is exactly what environmental, consumer, and labor groups warned would happen when the WTO was created four years ago. If any American thinks that this is only Europe’s problem, they should take a look at a few key WTO decisions in the last couple of years that have gone against us. In 1997 the US Environmental Protection Agency weakened its regulations on contaminants in imported gasoline, in order to comply with a WTO ruling that found these rules to be an unfair trade barrier. The enforcement of our Endangered Species Act– specifically, the protection of sea turtles– has also been compromised by recent WTO rulings.

From the point of view of big business, and especially large multi-national corporations, these are not disturbing developments. For them it is only natural to see human beings and our environment as mere instruments of expanding global trade and commerce. They are quite comfortable with having these decisions made by a tribunal of an international organization where they can have the predominant influence– unencumbered by any congress, parliament, or other elected officials that might have to care what ordinary citizens think.

The WTO is their creature, and so it has been pretty consistent in taking the side of business against the rights of citizens and the larger community. The dispute over hormone-treated beef is another round of the ongoing fight to assert these rights. It won’t be the last.

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