A victory for cheese eaters? US-EU trade spat defused.
Roquefort prices won't triple for Americans, and Europeans can block hormone-treated US beef.
| Boston; and Milan, Italy
Penny-pinching foodies can relax a bit.
In the US, this means wedges of Roquefort cheese won't be tripling in price. Proposed punitive duties against 34 other "luxury" food products from the EU – from Irish oatmeal to Italian mineral water – also will not take effect.
In Europe, the tentative trade dispute settlement means consumers won't have to worry about hormones lurking in the beefsteaks and burgers that come from the US.
The US dropped the tariff increases after the EU agreed to quadruple the allowed quotas of duty-free beef from the US. The beef, however, must be free from hormone treatments.
Hormone-treated beef was at the center of the dispute. The EU banned US beef in 1998 out of concerns that growth hormones widely used in US cattle posed health risks for humans.
Although the deal could boost exports of US beef, there was little celebration in cow country.
"It's disappointing that US beef from cattle treated with growth-promoting hormones remains locked out of the EU market," Sen. Charles Grassley (R) of Iowa said in a statement. "This beef is safe and consumed by millions of people in the United States and other countries every day. The European Union should reopen its market to all US beef, which is entirely safe."
Europe isn't convinced. Stefano Masini, spokesman for Coldiretti, Italy's major farmers' union, says European consumers are cautious about hormones and genetically modified food – Germany, for example, recently banned genetically modified corn.
"I'm glad the European institutions were firm on the issue of not importing beef treated with high amounts of growth hormones," Mr. Masini says. "It's important to safeguard free markets.... But one must also safeguard the rights of the consumer."
The proposed duties against so-called luxury food items from the EU were announced by the Bush administration days before the president left office. They were meant to target EU agriculture without hurting the average consumer in the US. Thus, Roquefort cheese from France was hit with a proposed 300 percent tariff while products like dried macaroni noodles from Italy were left untouched.
But the measures were decried as unfair and unwise, particularly as the global economy slowed.
"If you want to sell hormone beef to Europe, you have to educate the public," says an Italian diplomat posted in Washington, who asked to remain unnamed because he was not authorized to speak. "Everybody is comparing this to what happened in 1930s – one ingredient of that crisis was protectionism. You go for this kind of dispute, you take a risk that is not wise."
Although the dispute was far from the top concern facing President Obama, diplomats said it had become a significant source of friction between the US and EU. The agreement doesn't end the dispute over hormone beef, but it does offer a bit of breathing room for both sides to come up with a lasting solution.
The disagreement over hormone-treated beef illustrates a key difference between US and EU food safety regulation, says Emmanuel Lenain, a spokesman at the French embassy in Washington. After numerous food contamination scandals in Europe – notably the "mad cow" scare – regulators there adopted a more precautionary approach, which Mr. Lenain describes as "when you don't know something, you just don't do it."
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association, of the US, says Europe is wrong to ban hormone-treated beef. "These growth promotants have all been scientifically proven safe through rigorous Food and Drug Administration testing," according to a statement issued by the group Wednesday.
The issue might go deeper than scientific evidence. Genetically modified foods have also been scientifically tested as safe for human consumption – although major concerns remain about their impact on the environment – but a survey released in April in Italy shows 72 percent of Italians believe genetically modified foods are less healthy.