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Bans on Meat Imports Fuel Claims of U.S. Protectionism

Agriculture: Blocking of European products amid 'mad-cow' and foot-and-mouth outbreaks is seen as government move to aid domestic producers.

March 21, 2001|MELINDA FULMER | TIMES STAFF WRITER

As import barriers have gone up around the globe to stem the spread of "mad-cow" and foot-and-mouth diseases and genetically modified StarLink corn, some experts said the U.S. and its trading partners have begun using food safety fears as an excuse for economic protectionism.

"Most of these barriers are riding on potential safety concerns, but they have a big economic component," said Gary Hufbauer, a senior fellow with the Institute for International Economics in Washington. In a trading environment governed by World Trade Organization rules favoring open markets, food and animal health scares are "a very safe scapegoat" for those seeking to curb imports, he said.

Last week's ban by the U.S. Department of Agriculture on the import of an annual $278 million in live hogs and uncooked animal products from Europe to stem the spread of foot-and-mouth disease gives U.S. pork producers what they've been pushing for for years: a ban on pork imports and added sanctions for the European Union's decade-long refusal to accept hormone-treated meat from the U.S.

That move expanded the U.S.' ban on European cattle, sheep and goats, which was adopted in 1997 because of mad-cow concerns.

Some trade-policy observers said the U.S. was too aggressive in slapping a ban on all European countries when outbreaks of foot-and-mouth disease have been confirmed only in Britain and one region of France.

But some politicians have urged the USDA to cast an even wider quarantine net, including Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who said he wants to block imports of livestock from everywhere in the world, including rival Canada.

Although most experts agree that U.S. government regulators are justified in battening down the hatches at ports of entry to protect the food supply, they said the length of these bans and how and where they are lifted will show whether trade officials are exploiting these concerns to protect domestic producers.

A prime example of this kind of maneuvering, observers said, is the decision by the U.S. and NAFTA partners Canada and Mexico to ban Brazilian beef last month even though there had never been a case of mad cow reported in Brazil. After much public outcry, the ban was rescinded Feb 23.

The ban on European pork could last weeks, months or more, analysts said. USDA officials wouldn't speculate and said they are reviewing reports daily from countries affected by foot-and-mouth disease and will call off the ban when it's scientifically shown to be safe to do so.

The ban on EU beef could last much longer, USDA officials said, and will require intensive negotiations between the U.S. and EU. "I wouldn't think that would happen any time in the near future," said USDA spokesman Jerry Redding.

Economic protectionism under the guise of safeguarding the food supply is nothing new. For decades, countries have used pests and disease to keep foreign agricultural products from competing in their market.

California avocado growers used the seed weevil as a reason to keep Mexican avocados out of the U.S. market until 1997, when they were finally allowed into 19 states in the Midwest and Northeast.

And Australia recently moved to block California table grapes from entering its market because of the risk of importing Pierce's disease, a grapevine scourge that has devastated California vineyards. But it is a risk that many scientists here and in Australia dismiss.

The EU has been equally protective, blocking the shipment of genetically modified U.S. crops such as corn and soybeans and their seeds, even though they have not been shown to pose a human or animal health risk.

"That is more of a fig leaf for protectionism than our response to these outbreaks," said Peter Morici of the Economic Strategy Institute.

Japan also instituted a temporary ban on imports of U.S. corn until the U.S. proved it could keep StarLink, a feed corn not approved for human use, out of its shipments.

California's farm economy stands to lose or gain quite a bit from these trade disputes. The state is the top agricultural exporter in the U.S., with 1999 shipments totaling $7 billion--about the same as Mexico and Thailand and half that of Canada. Besides grapes, most of the state's top exports, including California beef, have been unaffected by these bans.

But that could change if food safety suspicions are raised about the state's products or if they are banned from foreign markets in retaliation to U.S. bans.

WTO rules require "sound science" to be the basis for such bans, but the level of acceptable risk varies from country to country, trade analysts said, making enforcement sometimes difficult.

After the U.S. extended its ban to all EU animals and meat last week, EU Food Safety Commissioner David Byrne called the move excessive and unjustified and threatened to go to the WTO if the ban remained in effect.

But a spokesman for EU Trade Commissioner Pascal Lamy later contradicted Byrne's remarks.

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