Although U.S. and European officials agree that the scientific debate over hormone-treated meat is just one aspect in their cross-Atlantic trade dispute, it nonetheless has focused concern on whether health safety is being sacrificed for profits.
European consumers and U.S. health advocacy groups say eating hormone-treated meat may be hazardous to your health. But many American scientists and government officials disagree.The debate has been spotlighted by a ban that the European Economic Community plans to implement Jan. 1 against hormone-treated beef and veal from the United States and all other foreign suppliers.
The ban, which will cost U.S. meat producers some $100 million in export sales to the 12-nation EEC, has sparked a warning of U.S. retaliation against some European food products that could deteriorate into a full-scale trade war.
In Paris, European Commission President Jacques Delors said in an interview that the U.S. trade sanctions infringe on member nations' rights to protect their citizens.
Delors told the Roman Catholic daily The Cross the U.S. tariff constitutes "another protectionist measure," which justifies an EC decision last week to "practice some counter-measures along the same lines as those taken by the American officials."
"The American decision constitutes an inadmissible intrusion upon the rights of every country to decide what is good and what is not good for the health of its citizens," Delors said.
Producers of beef and veal treat their cattle with hormones in order to make them grow faster, but U.S. regulatory officials say the quantities are minuscule compared with the amounts of the same hormones produced naturally by the human body.
The maximum dose allowed by the Food and Drug Administration for cattle equals one-tenth of the amount of the hormone found in pre-pubescent children, who have the lowest hormone level in humans. "It's totally inconsequential," Richard Teske, deputy director of the FDA's Center for Veterinary Medicine, said Wednesday.
The FDA approves only three kinds of hormone treatment: estrogen, progesterone and testosterone. It banned diethyl stilbestrol, or DES, 10 years ago after it was proven to be cancer-causing.
Use of DES by European cattle growers resulted in a scare for Italian consumers in 1980, when hundreds of children showed signs of early sexual development such as breast growth.
Similar reports of pre-pubescent development among some 3,000 Puerto Rican children in the early 1980s were never traced back to hormone use in animals, Tiske said.
Residues of DES also were discovered in residents of West Germany and Holland, prompting a consumer movement that led to European-wide legislation against hormone-treated meat.
But unlike European breeders, who in the past injected hormones into the skeletal parts of the cattle, American cattle raisers are only allowed to administer the hormones to the non-edible parts of the animals.
Under FDA regulations, the hormone pellets are shot into the animals' ears, from where they release the substance slowly into the blood stream. Thus, humans do not ingest meat with a high concentration of hormones.
Some abuses of the FDA standards have been reported, such as meat producers who inject the pellet into the edible portion of the cattle to make the hormones spread faster.