Trade Wars: Where’s the Beef

Mark Weisbrot


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.


Preamble Center

1737 21st Street NW

Washington DC 20009

(202) 265-3263, ext.279




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