Hormone beef or not

Anyone familiar with the seemingly endless trade wars between the US and the European Union (EU) would not be surprised about their 1998 battle over the beef trade. It started in the 1980s, when the EU first placed a domestic ban on the use of hormones in cattle breeding. The ban was based on the belief that hormones used in meat production were injurious to health, linked to various forms of cancers and to reductions in male fertility. In January 1989, Intra-European and world trade in hormone-treated meat was banned in the EU.

The US retaliated by imposing tariffs on European food imports. As the EU ban was domestic, the US could not mete out harsher treatment such as dragging the EU to the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

The legal context changed in 1995 after the adoption of World Trade Organization's (WTO) agreement on sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) measures. These measures allowed countries to impose trade restrictions for the protection of the life and health of human beings, plants and animals.

In 1996, the US filed a case against the EU at WTO, complaining that the EU's health concerns were not scientifically supported. The problem was with the continued rejection of US beef by the EU. Nearly 90 per cent of the US beef cattle are treated with six hormones to promote their growth and muscle development. Taking advantage of the newborn SPS agreement, the US requested the establishment of a dispute panel. In August 1997, the panel ruled in favour of the US and decided that the EU ban violated three separate provisions of the SPS agreement for the following reasons

l it was not based on a risk assessment;

l the level of health protection sought by the EU for hormones was inconsistent with the protection sought for other chemicals; and

l the hormone ban was not based on international standards which were available for five of the six hormones.

The EU took the panel's decision to the WTO appellate body, only to find the latter upholding the decision. In January 1998, the appellate body ruled that the EU measure was a violation of WTO rules as it was not based on an international standard or "scientifically justified'.

However, the final verdict of the appellate body accepted the right of nations to set their sanitary and phytosanitary standards at higher levels than those accepted by international organisations