If there's anything the United States and the European Economic Community do not need, it is to get embroiled in a trade war.
That's because Americans and Europeans are political allies as well as trading partners. Besides, as improved transportation and communication make the world in effect a smaller place, international trade becomes increasingly important to major industrial nations.Just how important can be seen from the fact that since early 1987, exports have accounted for fully half of all U.S. economic growth. Anything that shrinks U.S. export markets is bound to hurt.
So let's hope that President Reagan is right when he says that the squabble between the U.S. and Europe over an EEC ban on imports of hormone-treated meat from America can and will be resolved before the U.S. retaliation and possible European counter-measures get out of hand.
Meanwhile, the fight has focused attention on the use of hormones to make cattle bigger and more valuable, leaving some American consumers wondering how safe the meat they eat really is.
Such concerns have been overblown, particularly in Europe, and Americans can feel good about the health effects of American-grown meat.
The EEC became concerned about hormones in meat in 1980, when large doses of diethylstilbesdterol (DES) were found in veal-based baby food in Italy. Critics say DES and other growth hormones cause tumors and genital deformities in babies.
But there was never any suggestion that the DES came from the United States, where it is banned.
The hormones approved for use in the U.S. are testosterone, estradiol, progesterone, and two synthetic compounds - zeranol and trenbolone acetate. But the quantities administered to cattle are miniscule compared with the amounts of the same hormones produced naturally by the human body. The maximum dose allowed by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration for cattle equals one-tenth of the amount of hormone found in pre-pubescent children, who have the lowest hormone level of any human.
Unlike European cattle breeders, American cattle growers are allowed to administer the hormones only to the non-edible parts of the animals. Under FDA regulations, 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.
What's more, most meat animals in the U.S. are weaned off all hormones long before slaughter and thus contain no residue.
The U.S. has offered several times to submit the health issue to an international panel of scientists, but the Common Market has refused. This lends credence to Washington's contention that the EEC is baring American cattle January 1 just to protect European cattle growers from American competition rather than out of any concern for consumers' health.
While this situation should set the American public's mind at ease on one score, it raises concerns on another. How can the U.S. expect fair trade negotiations from partners who resort to subterfuge?