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Sierra Magazine
Food for Thought: Raging Hormones

Trade war pits fast food against foie gras

At anti-American demonstrations in Europe, Ronald McDonald has replaced Uncle Sam as the symbol of Yankee hegemony. To the surprise of the bio-tech and beef industries, Europe is in open revolt against the brave new millennium of genetically engineered, hormone-treated, industrially produced food. At the root of the clash are radically different cultural attitudes toward food.

In the United States, the mass migration to the cities in the mid-1900s effectively severed people's link to agriculture. Fast, highly processed, and very cheap food became not only the norm but the ideal. Europeans, on the other hand, are willing to pay more for their food and to support small farmers and producers. (After visiting France last year, Senator Bob Kerrey [D-Neb.] complained about the "luxurious affluence" of its small farmers.)

The United States' insistence on selling hormone-treated beef in Europe caused these cultural differences to mushroom into an international food fight. Since the 1950s, the American meat industry has treated cattle with hormones, both natural and synthetic. Like bodybuilders on steroids, the cattle put on muscle mass rather than fat, cutting costs to producers by as much as $80 per animal. Other common hormonal treatments regulate fertility and make cows produce more milk.

The FDA insists that, when properly used, these hormones pose no risk to humans. Unfortunately, however, it took the agency until 1979 to ban the synthetic hormone diethylstilbestrol (DES), widely used since the 1950s to bulk up beef, well after the hormone was associated with cancers in humans in the early '60s. Worldwide, its illegal use continued; in Italy, DES turned up in veal calves and even baby food, leading to reports of infant girls growing breasts and menstruating. Partly as a result of the scandal, the European Union banned all growth-promoting hormones from its members' cattle, and barred all hormone-treated imports in 1989.

The U.S. beef industry says that this blanket ban has no scientific basis, since the World Health Organization has judged the use of current growth-promoting hormones to be safe. The United States took the case to the World Trade Organization (WTO), which ruled in 1997 that the hormone ban was an illegal trade barrier.

France and other European nations refused to give in, however. Last year a European Union scientific committee concluded that the hormone estradiol causes cancer, and that others"may cause a variety of health problems including cancer, developmental problems, harm to immune systems, and brain disease. Even exposure to small levels of residues in meat and meat products carries risks." These concerns are shared by University of Illinois cancer researcher Dr. Samuel Epstein. "The question we ought to be asking," he says, "is not why Europe won’t buy our hormone-treated meat, but why we allow beef from hormone-treated cattle to be sold to American and Canadian consumers."

In retaliation, and with the backing of the WTO, the United States slapped 100 percent tariffs on a variety of European luxury imports to the United States, including foie gras, truffles, Roquefort cheese, and Dijon mustard. Things got worse from there, with French Agriculture Minister Jean Glavny declaring that the United States" has the worst food in the world." French farmer Josť Bovť became a national hero last August when he wrecked a McDonald’s restaurant under construction in the town of Millau. European Union spokesperson Nikolaus van der Pas says that the Europeans would stand firm against U.S. pressure: "The Americans have said we’re wrong, and we disagree completely with the Americans."

Cultural attitudes about food and risk are not easily swayed, either by science or tariff. France also refuses beef from England, fearing the taint of mad-cow disease. Britain insists that its beef is safe; the French, says Prime Minister Tony Blair, "have defied the law and science." But the United States also quietly rejects British beef. Our policy refuses to accept the risk of mad-cow disease, but accepts the risk of cancer from hormones—and insists that others do the same. In doing so, it pays homage more to the needs of the U.S. beef industry than to either science or safety.

Paul Rauber is a senior editor at Sierra.

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