United States beef producers have a bone to pick with Western Europe. Beginning Jan. 1, the 12-member European Economic Community (EC) is planning to ban all US meat products from animals raised on hormones.
European consumers, the EC says, are concerned about a health risk in eating hormone-treated meat products. The EC says the ban is in response to these concerns.
``It isn't based on a trade barrier,'' says Ella Krucoff, a spokeswoman for the EC Washington office. ``It's based on what consumers want to eat.''
The US, which exports between $100 million to $145 million worth of meat products to the EC every year, says the ban is a political rather than health issue and plans to retaliate if the ban takes effect. Tariffs will be increased on a list of EC imports to the US including some pork, beef, and tomato products if the ban stays, says Kelly Winkler of the US trade representative's office.
In a tit-for-tat move, the EC says it will consider counter-retaliation Tuesday that could threaten other transatlantic commerce.
About 50 to 55 percent of all US beef products are hormone treated, estimates Dr. Darrel Wilkes of the National Cattleman's Association. Hormones, primarily used for cattle, help stimulate growth of lean muscle tissue, he says. Used in pellet form, they are implanted in a cow's ear. The pellet gradually releases hormones into the animal's body.
The hormone issue was one of the topics discussed at a meeting Friday when US Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter and Agriculture Secretary Richard Lyng met with EC officials in Brussels. So far, no breakthroughs have been announced, one US official says.
The European Parliament, however, is in the process of reexamining the scientific basis for issuing the ban, says Lester Crawford of the US Agriculture Department. A resolution from the Parliament to undo the ban may cause the EC Council to rethink its initial vote to impose the ban. It is not certain, however, if or when the Parliament findings will be issued.
As the second largest meat exporter to the EC after Argentina, the US hopes to reach some kind of agreement to avoid the ban.
The measure was originally to take effect last January but was postponed because the US pressured the EC for an extension.
Most of the top meat-producing countries that export to the EC use hormones, Dr. Crawford says. It is unlikely these countries will change, he says.
``We don't see any sentiment here for changing our ways,'' he says. ``I don't think we're going to see a change anywhere else around the world.''
The US says hormone-treated meat does not pose a health risk. The US Food and Drug Administration has approved all five hormones used for US beef, and a UN Food and Agriculture commission found in 1986 that the hormones were safe, Crawford says.
But according to Ms. Krucoff of the EC, concern over hormone-treated meat is really about how much risk one wants to take. European consumers are concerned about the risk of cancer and of the development of secondary sexual characteristics - conditions associated with hormone treatment.
``I don't think any government will completely say there is no risk,'' she says. ``The European consumer wants to take a no-risk approach.''
The EC points out that the ban is just as much an internal as it is an external measure. A ban on the implantation of hormones in meat-producing animals has been in effect for EC countries since last January. All EC members, as well as exporting countries, will be subject to the ban on the sale of hormone beef starting in January.
US agricultural experts say, however, that Europeans may have trouble testing for hormones in the meat imports. Such testing can be costly and time consuming, they say. Also, three of the five hormones banned by the EC are naturally produced and cannot be detected, says Crawford.
``You can't enforce the ban, since you can't test for them,'' he says.
In the meantime, Dr. Wilkes says US cattle farmers plan to continue using the hormones. ``I don't think they [farmers] are going to give up a useful, cost-efficient technology.''