WASHINGTON — CARLA HILLS has a beef about beef. And she's not too happy about grapefruit, either.... As the United States trade representative, she has the complex - and often thankless - job of monitoring trade restrictions worldwide, protesting inequities, and trying to ensure that American exporters aren't subject to unfair restrictions by other countries.
And, Ms. Hills contends, American beef exporters are getting a raw deal from European nations, who are insisting that only hormone-free US beef be allowed into their markets.
That, she says, is merely protectionism by another name. The European Community (EC) has banned imports of US beef because it contains hormones that promote the growth of cattle.
EC officials say the move is to protect consumers from unwittingly ingesting hormones, and possibly damaging their health. Unfair, says Ms. Hills.
``We have the healthiest beef in the world,'' she asserts.
What's more, she says, there is every likelihood that domestic beef from any given European butcher or grocery actually contains many more hormones than beef imported from the US.
At a recent meeting with reporters, Hills explained that US producers place a small device in the ear of beef cattle, which causes hormones to drip slowly into the circulatory system of the animal. But she says that the use of hormones is stopped weeks before the animals are slaughtered. Typically, US beef contains only about 0.02 parts per billion of hormones.
On the other hand, she says, European farmers routinely slaughter dairy cattle for meat - dairy cattle that may have been injected with hormones to increase milk production right up until the time they are slaughtered. Typically, she adds, such beef can contain 480,000 parts per billion of hormones. This beef is routinely marketed along with other meat, some of which contains no hormones. But consumers don't know the difference, she says.
Typically, then, US beef might contain ``astronomically less'' hormones than European beef, yet it's excluded from the European market because it isn't hormone-free.
Worse, says Hills, EC officials won't allow systematic tests to allow US exporters to prove this point. ``We want to see good scientific methodology in making decisions,'' she says. ``If they [EC officials] won't test, it's a very difficult regulation with which to deal.''
Carla Hills is a precise speaker, who rarely gropes for words. She says that while there are some positive developments in the US trade picture, there are lots of reasons for concern.
``I am concerned about our [US] rate of savings,'' which, she says, has now ``fallen off dramatically in historic terms.'' That development, she says, is forcing the US to borrow overseas for funds for investing. And that, in turn, is worsening the US trading position.
Can the US appetite for foreign goods and capital be brought under control? ``It's going to take some discipline,'' she says. Hills says that she is not concerned about a possible negative impact on US business from the coming European Community unification in 1992. By that year, most trade restrictions between European countries are supposed to be dropped, market regulations are to be made uniform, and customs barriers are to be greatly minimized.
``Basically, we look at the move to a unified market in a positive way,'' she says. But, she adds, there are some worrisome signs that some lingering regulations - such as ``local content'' measures that limit the amount of foreign-made components in products - could still confound US exporters.
Similarly, Hills complains that some trade restrictions seem to be based on ignorance and fear, rather than facts. In recent months, she says, some countries have banned the import of US grapefruit and cherries on grounds they might be contaminated with Alar, a chemical used by apple growers that is suspected of causing cancer. The problem, she says, is that while Alar does make apples redder and firmer, it does nothing to either grapefruit or cherries. Consequently, she says, it would be pointless for US growers to apply the chemical to either fruit, and there is no evidence they ever have.