Can beef trade finally be normalised?
By Brian Beary in Washington | Friday 06 July 2012
For two decades, EU-US trade in beef has been severely disrupted by disagreements between the transatlantic partners over measures each has taken unilaterally citing food safety grounds. Three in particular stand out: the EU ban on hormone-treated US beef dating from 1990; the US ban on all EU beef introduced in 1997 in response to the mad cow disease (BSE) epidemic in Europe; and, more recently, EU concerns about allowing lactic acid to be used to decontaminate meat carcasses, a common practice in the US. After years of threats, retaliatory measures and lawsuits, the two sides seem to be making headway toward resuming normal trade relations in the beef sector and yet there remain significant road bumps to be cleared.
EU PUSH FOR BSE BAN REMOVAL
The EU continues to pressure the US Department of Agriculture to finalise a rule making process it launched in March 2012 that should culminate in the lifting of the US ban on EU beef. According to one EU official, the US ban should not be compared to the EU ban because the former shuts out all European beef from the American market, while the latter only excludes beef treated with hormones. When the US’ BSE-motivated ban was adopted, Europe was experiencing thousands of incidences of BSE each year, the highest concentration being in the United Kingdom. By contrast, so far in 2012, just a couple of dozen BSE cases have been recorded in Europe - and these were among older animals not intended for the food chain. The EU never imposed BSE-motivated restrictions on US beef as the disease was much less prevalent in the US. American farmers typically feed cattle with soybean meal rather than offal (ground-up parts of butchered animals), which was the main culprit in the EU’s BSE problem. While the US, in April 2012, did announce a new case of BSE from a milking cow in California, the Commission concluded this was not a cause for concern.
NEW PHASE IN HORMONE AGREEMENT
As for the hormone dispute, the EU justifies its ban citing concerns about the long-term effects on human health of consuming hormone-treated meat. However, the EU lost a case on this issue to the US at the World Trade Organisation (WTO), in 1998, as a result of which the US was allowed to impose retaliatory trade sanctions. While the US for several years imposed such sanctions, in 2009 the two sides reached a compromise agreement under which the US agreed to remove the retaliatory trade tariffs on European foods like Roquefort cheese in return for more non-hormone-treated US beef being allowed onto the EU market tariff-free. That agreement remains in place and a new phase of it begins on 1 August when the tariff-free quota increases from 20,000 tonnes to 48,200 tonnes. Though the US is the main beneficiary of this, other ‘most favoured nations’ can benefit from it too, notably Canada, Australia, New Zealand and Uruguay.
A newer issue has been the EU’s hesitation to authorise the treatment of meat carcasses with lactic acid to decontaminate them. The EU member states are due to discuss the issue on 18 July, with some countries thought to be still resisting giving the treatment the green light. That in spite of the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) giving it the all clear, in July 2011, and the Commission consequently also coming on board with it.
DIFFICULT DIALOGUE AHEAD
Looking ahead, one can expect trade barriers to persist - and new ones to emerge - due to differing conclusions being drawn by EU and US regulators as to the risks posed to human health by various breeding, rearing and meat processing practices, as well as outbreaks of diseases. They acknowledged as much in the interim report, published on 19 June, of the EU-US High-Level Working Group on Jobs and Growth, which recommended that talks on a comprehensive EU-US free trade agreement be launched. Rather than limiting these talks to tariff issues, that report recommended that they cover sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) issues too as this would create “a bilateral forum for improved dialogue and cooperation”. Fractious and painful this dialogue may be, there is growing acceptance that it is necessary. n