FOR years, the European public was fed a diet of meat-scandal stories.
That is making things tricky for the United States and other beef producers who want to export hormone-treated beef. Despite assertions by scientists that the beef is safe, many officials on the Continent remain uncowed. Late last month the US lodged a formal complaint with the World Trade Organization (WTO), and both sides are scrambling to win the long-running dispute.
"The problem, without a doubt, is more than consumer concern. It's a public health issue," says an Italian trade official who asked not to be named. "Ten years ago, you would buy 1 kilo of Italian meat and put it in the pan and it would shrink to nothing. Babies were changing sex because of hormones in their food. Now, finally, confidence is back up. So officials are afraid if beef with hormones is allowed into Europe, confidence will crack."
Experts say the problems he cites had to do with artificial hormones in meat and broth, whereas the current question involves natural hormones used to increase the growth rate of cattle. The hormones come from capsules implanted behind the animal's ear, which are removed well before slaughter to ensure that no hormone residue ends up in meat.
The US has asked the Geneva-based WTO for consultations, the first step in the organization's dispute-settlement procedure. Australia, Canada, New Zealand, Chile, and Argentina have also asked to join the US effort.
The US contends that the European Union (EU) ban violates trade regulations agreed in the 1994 Uruguay Round accord on world trade. It was agreed that no WTO member can impose a ban if no scientific evidence exists to support the ban.
US farmers say they lose about $120 million a year because of the ban. They use three naturally occurring hormones, all of which have been approved by both national and international agencies.
In retaliation for the losses, the US levied trade sanctions on certain pasta products and Italian canned tomatoes.
Several factors led to Europe's 1989 ban, says Susan Bouffler, of the Belgium-based European Consumers Union. Europe had a meat surplus and several meat-safety scandals involving domestic meat, from corrupt Belgian meat inspectors to Irish farmers mixing their own hormone solutions at home.
Yet, despite the bad memories, the public-preference argument doesn't stand anymore, says John Jackson, professor of public policy and economics at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor.
A 1995 European Consumers Union poll in Germany, Belgium, France, Britain, the Netherlands, and Sweden seems to support Mr. Jackson's point. More than 50 percent of the 6,000 people surveyed don't think European beef is any safer now than before the 1989 ban. And 52 percent say they would buy US beef if they could because it tastes better, is healthier, and costs less than the European variety. (Some US beef raised without hormones is sold in Europe.)
"US beef has a really good reputation and it sells quickly," says Robert Vuliamy, owner of a butcher shop in Lausanne, Switzerland, which is not part of the EU but has similar trade laws. "In my opinion there isn't anything to worry about."
"At least give us a chance," says Willem Zerk, spokesman for the US Meat Export Federation in Hamburg, Germany. "I understand the consumer concerns, but we'd probably be willing to identify the product as US beef raised with natural hormones. Then, if consumers didn't buy it, that would send us a message."
Australia has also suffered from the ban. The country has worked out a system where certain Australian farmers don't use beef growth promoters. That move costs them an extra $10 million a year, but they win export sales worth $135 million a year, says Peter May, an Australian trade official.