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?
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 placed
sanctions last week on 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.
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.
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Weisbrot is research director at the Preamble Center, in Washington, D.C.
1737 21st Street NW
Washington DC 20009
(202) 265-3263, ext.279