U.S. threatens trade action in beef with Europe over hormone-treated cattle

A cow on a ranch outside the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Ore., Dec. 7, 2016.
A cow on a ranch outside the Malheur National Forest near John Day, Ore., Dec. 7, 2016. AP

The Obama administration has moved closer to taking trade actions against the European Union over its ban on most American beef products.

The office of the U.S. Trade Representative said Thursday that it would schedule a hearing and seek public comment that could result in tariffs imposed on food products imported from the EU to the United States.

In the past, products subjected to that retaliatory tariff have included Italian mineral water, Roquefort cheese and truffles.

American beef exports represent a $6 billion a year business, and the move could be significant for the country’s largest beef-producing states, which include Kansas, Texas and California.

The EU has banned meat produced with growth-inducing hormones since 1989. U.S. officials have long maintained there is no scientific basis for banning hormone-treated beef, and many other countries use hormones to stimulate growth in beef cattle.

In 1997, the World Trade Organization ruled that the ban violated international trade rules.

The U.S. and the EU struck a provisional deal in 2009 that would allow U.S. producers to export a limited quantity of non-hormone-treated beef to the EU, duty free. But according to U.S. Trade Representative Michael Froman, that agreement has not worked as intended.

“The EU has failed to live up to assurances to address this issue, and it’s now time to take action,” Froman said in a statement.

Tracy Brunner, president of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, praised Froman’s announcement. Brunner said countries other than the U.S. had filled the EU’s import quota for non-hormone-treated beef.

“The EU has violated the spirit of that agreement and caused U.S. beef exports to become a minority interest in a quota meant to compensate U.S. beef producers,” he said in a statement.

“While this is not our preferred choice,” Brunner added, “retaliation is the only way cattle producers are going to secure our rights for the losses we have incurred over the years due to the EU’s hormone ban.”

The issue has united lawmakers from agricultural states across party lines. Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee, said Thursday he’d continue to seek bipartisan support for ending the EU’s trade barriers to U.S. beef.

“The patience of U.S. beef producers has worn thin, as has my own,” Roberts said in a statement. “Our government must take proactive steps to enforce the rules of international trade, as it is critical to American beef industry.”

Curtis Tate: 202-383-6018, @tatecurtis