Europe’s beef with the butcher

On a trip to Germany a few years ago, I wandered into the meat section of a grocery store. What I saw astonished me.

The beef section in the meat case was very small and the prices were very high — the price of a very average cut of beef was similar to what we would expect to pay for a prime cut of beef in a very high-end grocery store in the United States. It appeared to me that European families had very little choice — in either quality or price — when they purchased beef for a family meal.

Europeans have no idea what they’re missing.

It’s just one more reason why Washington must push for a robust free-trade agreement with the European Union. If American beef exports had better access to European markets, our ranchers and processors would experience a boom of job-creating growth.

President Obama said as much in his State of the Union speech in February: “Trade that is free and fair across the Atlantic supports millions of good-paying American jobs.”

Yet very few are in the beef industry.

It wasn’t always this way. A generation ago, Europe was America’s second-largest market for beef. Within a few years, however, the presence of U.S. beef in the grocery stores and restaurants of London, Paris and Rome plummeted. We went from selling 18 percent of our beef exports to Europe in 1989 to selling just 3 percent in 1994.

Consumers didn’t turn against us, but public perceptions did. After a series of hormone scandals in the 1970s and 1980s, Europeans experienced a period of anti-scientific hysteria, concerned that beef produced from animals that received growth hormones posed a risk to human health. They banned it. The ban was not science-based and not needed: Growth hormones are safe and conventional elements of beef production. The use of growth hormones is, in fact, an important part of sustainable food production. The growth hormones allow us to do more with less. Cattle reach their proper weight in fewer days and with less feed, allowing quality to go up and costs to go down.

In Europe, however, ignorance and politics trumped science. The ban went into force, and Americans have paid an economic price ever since.

At first, we turned to the World Trade Organization, which was established in part to adjudicate these types of disputes. The World Trade Organization ruled in our favor, observing that there is no scientific rationale for the ban. It allowed the United States to impose retaliatory tariffs on a range of European products. This was supposed to encourage Europeans to come to their senses.

Two decades have passed, and the European Union continues to resist. Its illegal ban on U.S. beef has stayed in place, and the retaliatory tariffs have caused American consumers to pay more than they should for Roquefort cheese and other imports.

We need to try a new approach — and a broad-based free-trade agreement between the United States and the European Union is exactly the right forum for dealing with the problem.

The good news is that a pact would benefit both sides, and the Europeans appear to want one desperately. This means they may be unusually willing to alter their hard-line stance on beef, which their officials know to be wrongheaded.

We’ve already seen at least one initial concession. The European Union recently lifted a ban on meat washed with lactic acid, which safely removes contaminants such as E. coli from food. This was another unscientific prohibition of a common practice in the United States.

These important steps suggest that larger compromises could be reached soon.

In free-trade negotiations, agriculture is usually one of the trickiest sectors — and it definitely will be the toughest part of any deal with the European Union. In addition to the ban on beef, we also must confront the EU’s politically based resistance to biotech crops.

There is a great price to be paid by all when countries allow nonscientific trade barriers to stay in place. Reduced investment in productivity-enhancing technologies and reduced trade between countries are just the tip of the iceberg. Unless we work together to make sure that politics and perceptions are not allowed to override science, the price for global food security also will go up.

Right now, however, anything looks possible — and anybody who lays eyes on the meat section of a European grocery store will see how much we all have to gain.

Hope Pjesky, a farmer in northern Oklahoma where she raises cattle and wheat, is a board member for Truth About Trade & Technology.

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