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Thursday, May 13, 1999 Published at 10:54 GMT 11:54 UK

Business: The Economy

Battle over beef hormones

The European Union (EU) has refused to meet the World Trade Organisation's (WTO) deadline for lifting its ban on imports of hormone-treated beef from the US. It imposed the ban due to concerns over the potential risk to human health of the growth-promoting hormones. BBC News Online presents arguments from both sides of the safety debate.

The National Consumer Council in the United Kingdom supports the EU's concerns.

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We believe the EU should stand firm on this issue in the interests of consumer health and safety.

There are a number of concerns linked to the use of hormones as growth promoters, including reports that they may lead to cancer.

Scientists have argued that any increase in the level of hormones, above that which occurs naturally in humans, carries a potential risk of carcinogenic effects.

The risks associated with 'cocktails' of different hormones are also unclear. Different scientists take differing views. But what is certain is that the safety of hormones in beef, and other meat products, has been called into question.

Under such circumstances, we should apply the 'precautionary principle', already widely adopted in international treaties.

The main thrust of the precautionary principle is that, where an activity poses a serious risk to human health, precautionary measures should be taken - even if certain cause and effect relationships are not scientifically proven.

In short, we should err on the side of caution where there is a potentially serious risk. This principle is recognised in the Sanitary and Phylosanitary Agreement of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT).

We believe that the health and safety of consumers should be the prime consideration - and is reason enough for the ban to stay.

No international trade agreement or law prevents governments from protecting their consumers against potentially serious threats to health, as long as they can point to scientific evidence to justify their actions.

The EU can do so in this case. Consumers are extremely concerned about food safety - and where safety is in question, governments should act to protect them.
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The United States government attacks the EU's concerns.

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We have been seeking a solution to this issue for over a decade. We have informed the EU of our willingness to be flexible on examining solutions to their concerns.

However, the dispute cannot be resolved until US beef obtains access to the EU market. Over four decades of scientific research has found no justification for continuing the EU's ban.

Study after study over the last four decades has confirmed that the proper use of these compounds, according to approved registered labels, poses no risk to human or animal health.

The EU's own Scientific Conference on Growth Promotants held in 1995 reached the same conclusion.

Most recently, in its 1999 meeting, the Joint Expert Committee on Food Additives (JECFA) of the World Health Organisation and Food and Agriculture Organisation reconfirmed the safety of certain growth hormones when administered to cattle in accordance with good veterinary practices.

JECFA concluded that there is no need to establish maximum residue levels for the hormones Estradiol, progesterone, and testosterone because the presence of residues would not present a health concern.

This is but the latest in a long series of similar findings. The EU already presented these arguments to an impartial WTO dispute-settlement panel in 1997. It lost.

It then appealed that decision to the WTO and lost again last year. The EU, having failed in every step of the WTO process, appears to be once again searching for a way to avoid its international obligations.

The major premise of the EU's effort seems to be the potential for risk assuming the hormones might be abused. In the United States, use of these approved compounds is carefully licensed and regulated.

Scientific consensus has already answered the debate over public health and safety. The issue is the EU's refusal to comply with the WTO rulings and its unwillingness to honor its international obligations.
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