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The Beef Hormone Dispute is one of the two most intractable transatlantic agricultural disputes since the establishment of the World Trade Organization, the other being the Banana War.[1]

In the 1990s, in the midst of the mad cow disease crisis, the European Union banned the import of meat that contained artificial beef hormones. WTO rules permit such bans, but only where a signatory presents valid scientific evidence that the ban is a health and safety measure. Canada and the United States opposed this ban, taking the EU to the WTO Dispute Settlement Body. In 1997, the WTO ruled against the EU. The EU appealed the ruling.[2][3]



The EU ban and its background

The hormones banned by the EU in cattle farming were estradiol, progesterone, testosterone, melengesterol acetate, trenbolone acetate, and zeranol. Of these, the first three are artificial versions of endogenous hormones that are naturally produced in humans and animals, and also occur in a wide range of foods, whereas the second three are exogenous hormones, that are synthetic and not naturally occurring, that mimic the behaviour of endogenous hormones. The EU did not impose an absolute ban. Under veterinary supervision, cattle farmers were permitted to administer the synthetic versions of natural hormones for cost-reduction and possibly therapeutic purposes, such as synchronising the oestrus cycles of dairy cows. All of these six hormones were licensed for use in the U.S. and in Canada.[4][5]

Under the Agreement on the Application of Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures, signatories are permitted to impose restrictions on health and safety grounds subject to scientific analysis. The heart of the Beef Hormone Dispute was the fact that all risk analysis is statistical in nature, and thus unable to determine with certainty the absence of health risks, and consequent disagreement between the U.S. and Canada beef producers on the one hand, who believed that a broad scientific consensus existed that beef produced with the use of hormones was safe, and the EU on the other, which asserted that it was not safe.[4]

The use of these hormones in cattle farming, had been studied scientifically in North America for 50 years prior to the ban, and there had been widespread long-term use in over 20 countries. The assertion of Canada and the United States was that this provided empirical evidence both of long-term safety and of scientific consensus.[4]

The EU measures may not have been wholly motivated by scientific analysis. The E.U. was at the time under pressure from its citizens, who, in the light of the mad cow disease crisis, were reluctant to accept the word of scientific authorities on the matter of food safety, in particular where it related to cattle products. However, the EU ban was not, as it was portrayed to rural constituencies in the U.S. and Canada, protectionism. The EU had already had other measures that effectively restricted the import of North American beef. In the main, the North American product that the new ban affected that existing barriers did not was edible offal.[2][4]

It was not producers asking for protectionist measures that were pressuring the E.U., but consumers, expressing concerns over the safety of hormone use. There were a series of widely publicized "hormone scandals" in Italy in the late 1970s and early 1980s. The first, in 1977, was signs of the premature onset of puberty in northern Italian schoolchildren, where investigators had cast suspicion in the direction of school lunches that had used meat farmed with the (illegal) use of growth hormones. No concrete evidence linking premature puberty to growth hormones was found, in part because no samples of the suspect meals were available for analysis. But public anger arose at the use of such meat production techniques, to be further fanned by the discovery in 1980 of the (again illegal) presence of diethylstilbestrol (DES), another synthetic hormone, in veal-based baby foods.[4][6]

The scientific evidence for health risks associated with the use of growth hormones in meat production was, at best, scant. However, consumer lobbyist groups were far more able to successfully influence the European Parliament to enact regulations in the 1980s than producer lobbyist groups were, and had far more influence over public perceptions. This is in contrast with the U.S. at the time, where there was little interest from consumer organizations in the subject prior to the 1980s, and regulations were driven by a well-organized coalition of export-oriented industry and farming interests, who were only opposed by traditional farming groups.[5]

Until 1980, the use of growth hormones, both endogenous and exogenous, was completely prohibited in (as noted above) Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Greece. Germany, the largest beef producer in the EU at the time, prohibited just the use of exogenous growth hormones. The five other member countries, including the second and third largest beef producers, France and the United Kingdom, permitted their use. (The use of growth hormones was particularly common in the U.K., where beef production was heavily industrialized.) This had resulted in several disputes amongst member countries, with the countries that had no prohibitions arguing that the restrictions by the others acted as non-tariff trade barriers. But in response to the public outcry in 1980, in combination with the contemporary discovery that DES was a teratogen, the EU began to issue regulations, beginning with a directive prohibiting the use of stilbenes and thyrostatics issued by the European Community Council of Agriculture Ministers in 1980, and the commissioning of a scientific study into the use of estradiol, testosterone, progesterone, trenbolone, and zeranol in 1981.[5]

The European Bureau of Consumers Unions (BEUC) lobbied for a total ban upon growth hormones, opposed, with only partial success, by the pharmaceutical industry, which was not well organized at the time. (It was not until 1987, at the instigation of U.S. firms, that the European Federation of Animal Health, FEDESA, was formed to represent at EU level the companies that, amongst other things, manufactured growth hormones.) Neither European farmers nor the meat processing industry took any stance on the matter. With the help of the BEUC, consumer boycotts of veal products, sparked by in Italy by reports about DES in Italian magazines and in France and Germany by similar reports, spread from those three countries across the whole of the EU, causing companies such as Hipp and Alete to withdraw their lines of veal products, and veal prices to drop significantly in France, Belgium, West Germany, Ireland, and the Netherlands. Because of the fixed purchases guaranteed by the then common agricultural policy of the EU, there was a loss of ECU 10 million to the EU's budget.[5]

The imposition of a general ban was encouraged by the European Parliament, with a 1981 resolution passing by a majority of 177:1 in favour of a general ban. MEPs, having been directly elected for the first time in 1979, were taking the opportunity to flex their political muscles, and were in part using the public attention on the issue to strengthen the Parliament's rôle. The Council of Ministers was divided along lines that directly matched each country's domestic stance on growth hormone regulation, with France, Ireland, the U.K., Belgium, Luxembourg, and Germany all opposing a general ban. The European Commission, leery of a veto by the Council and tightly linked to both pharmaceutical and (via Directorate VI) agricultural interests, presented factual arguments and emphasized the problem of trade barriers.[5]

WTO panel decisions and E.U. appeal

The WTO Appellate Body affirmed the WTO Panel conclusion in a report adopted by the Dispute Settlement Body on February 13, 1998. Section 208 of this report says:

[W]e find that the European Communities did not actually proceed to an assessment, within the meaning of Articles 5.1 and 5.2, of the risks arising from the failure of observance of good veterinary practice combined with problems of control of the use of hormones for growth promotion purposes. The absence of such risk assessment, when considered in conjunction with the conclusion actually reached by most, if not all, of the scientific studies relating to the other aspects of risk noted earlier, leads us to the conclusion that no risk assessment that reasonably supports or warrants the import prohibition embodied in the EC Directives was furnished to the Panel. We affirm, therefore, the ultimate conclusions of the Panel that the EC import prohibition is not based on a risk assessment within the meaning of Articles 5.1 and 5.2 of the SPS Agreement and is, therefore, inconsistent with the requirements of Article 5.1.

U.S./Canadian measures taken after May 1999

Canada and the U.S. imposed $125 million in total extra annual tariffs of goods coming from the EU. The tariffed goods change each year to have maximum effect.

E.U. claims to new scientific evidence in 2004

Findings by the EU Scientific Committee of Veterinary measures relating to Public Health found that certain hormones were harmful to humans.

Effects upon policy in the E.U.

Effects upon public opinion in the U.S. and Canada

One of the effects of the Beef Hormone Dispute in the US was to awaken the public's interest in the issue. This interest was not wholly unsympathetic to the EU. In 1989, for example, the Consumer Federation of America and the Center for Science in the Public Interest both pressed for an adoption of a ban within the U.S. similar to that within the E.U..[7]


  1. ^ Ernst-Ulrich Petersmann and Mark A. Pollack (2003). Transatlantic Economic Disputes: The EU, the US, and the WTO. Oxford University Press. pp. 223. ISBN 0199261733.  
  2. ^ a b Jeff Colgan (2005). The Promise And Peril Of International Trade. Broadview Press. pp. 126. ISBN 1551116804.  
  3. ^ John Van Oudenaren (2000). Uniting Europe: European Integration and the Post-Cold War World. Rowman & Littlefield. pp. 251. ISBN 0847690326.  
  4. ^ a b c d e William A. Kerr and Jill E. Hobbs (2005). "9. Consumers, Cows and Carousels: Why the Dispute over Beef Hormones is Far More Important than its Commercial Value". in Nicholas Perdikis and Robert Read. The WTO And The Regulation Of International Trade. Edward Elgar Publishing. pp. 191–214. ISBN 1843762005.  
  5. ^ a b c d e Ladina Caduff (2002-08) (PDF). Growth Hormones and Beyond. ETH Zentrum.  
  6. ^ Renu Gandhi and Suzanne M. Snedeker (June 2000). "Consumer Concerns About Hormones in Food". Program on Breast Cancer and Environmental Risk Factors. Cornell University.  
  7. ^ Daniel Best (1989-03-01). "Hormones in meat: what are the real issues?". Prepared Foods (Business News Publishing Co.).  

Further reading

External links

U.S. Government resources

E.U. resources

See also

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