In its first food safety decision, the World Trade Organization (“WTO”) has ruled against a European ban on beef produced with growth hormones and set a precedent that could be used to strike down countless other food safety standards.
The United States mounted this challenge against the European Union’s ban on imports of beef produced with growth-inducing hormones. While WTO rules ordinarily seek to ferret out discrimination against foreign products, Europe’s restrictions on hormone-treated beef is even-handed, applying equally to domestic and foreign beef.
During the 1980s, Italian consumers reacted with alarm at reports that infant girls developed breasts and began menstruating as a result of eating meat treated with the hormone DES (diethylstilbestrol). Since then, European consumers have demanded that no risk be tolerated from adding these chemicals to the food supply. “This decision is undemocratic. It denies countries the right to protect their citizens from risks before the scientific evidence is definitive and allows companies to reap profits from subjecting consumers to such risks in the meantime,” remarked Patti Goldman, attorney with the Seattle office of Earthjustice Legal Defense Fund. The decision was issued by three trade experts who met in secret and received arguments only from national governments. Consumers tried to present public health information and arguments to the panel, but their submission was rejected because of the WTO’s closed process.
“The U.S. Trade Representative has called this decision a ‘U.S. win,’ but it is a loss for consumers worldwide,” added Goldman. Under the new WTO food safety provisions, even-handed food regulations may be considered unfair trade barriers. The WTO panel put the burden on Europe to defend its beef regulation. To meet this burden, the panel ruled that Europe must either adopt international standards on point or put forward definitive scientific evidence that “an identifiable risk arises for human health from use of these hormones if good practice is followed.”
The international standard endorsed by the panel was adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission — a body comprised of national representatives but over which multinational food producers have extensive influence and consumer input is minimal. The Codex growth hormone standards were particularly controversial. While Codex standards are supposed to be adopted by consensus, the 1995 vote on the growth hormone standards was 33 countries in favor, 29 against, and seven abstentions. Under the WTO ruling, countries must, in most situations, adopt such standards even though they are not binding under Codex rules and even if the country opposed their adoption in Codex.
According to the WTO panel, a country may provide greater public health protection than a Codex standard only if has scientific evidence of definitive harm and it uniformly protects its citizens against that level of harm. This aspect of the WTO ruling eliminates the sovereign prerogative of countries to abide by the precautionary principle and protect their citizens against uncertain risks.
Jake Caldwell of Community Nutrition Institute observed, “In aggressively negotiating the WTO food safety provisions and mounting this challenge, the United States has laid the groundwork for an assault on the numerous U.S. food safety standards that are stronger than Codex standards. The tragedy is that, ultimately, U.S. consumers will be subjected to greater public health risks.”