Right now Europe is fighting for the right to refuse to import beef from the U.S. and Canada that has been grown with the aid of artificial hormones. The purpose of these hormones is to force the livestock to grow in a rapid, unnatural way. Beef has been grown this way in North America for some time, and is sold with no special labeling. Here, meats that have been raised with artificial hormones are allowed to be labelled “All Natural.” It is safe to assume that beef you are purchasing in Canada has been raised with the aid of artificial hormones. The one exception are meats sold at specialized organic food stores that clearly state that the meat was raised without added hormones. The World Trade Organization has consistently ruled that the North American system is correct. If Europe refuses to comply, it may be forced to endure a number of trade penalties.
The U.S., Canada and the W.T.O. maintain that testing has shown this beef to be safe. But is it? Lab testing has its limitations. Lab testing is fine when you are testing the outcome of something where the expected effect is immediate. But tests to determine what the long term effects of consuming small amounts of something over many years are hardly trustworthy and difficult to obtain. There also needs to be assumptions as to what the possible negative effects are. For instance, tests may be made to show signs of cancer, or other health disorders that may commonly occur from consuming toxic substances. But let us make up a hypothetical situation. Let’s say that a real negative unknown effect of consuming beef hormones (also known as growth promoters in the beef industry) is that people tend to put on more weight over their lifetimes than they would otherwise. Could testing show this? First, you would need to realize that unexpected weight gain was one of the possible side effects that you are looking for. Then, to test for something like this, you would need to find several sets of identical twins. They would need to be fed identical diets with the one difference being that one twin would eat meat grown with hormones while the other would eat naturally grown meat. Physical activity and environment would need to be controlled, over a period of decades. Of course, this type of testing is not feasible.
It is quite rational to suspect that consumption of substances that cause extreme unnatural growth in animals could be harmful to us. Obviously we are similar enough to animals to adopt this worry. This logic is so obvious, that one wonders why it is not considered an acceptable argument one nation may use to prohibit the sale of such meat. While we are one of the wealthiest nations in the world, we have growing numbers of some health maladies (such as diabetes) that have no explanation. Of course, it would be bad science to assume that this is because we are consuming beef with artificial hormones. However, if it is evident that we have more health problems than those in nations that do not consume these substances, it would be bad science to dismiss them as a possible factor.
Another valid concern that should be considered in the beef hormone issue is that animals grown this way are inevitably less healthy and require higher doses of antibiotics to stay alive. The problem here is that higher usage’s of antibiotics are contributing to cows gaining immunity to these antibiotics and the emergence of super infections – those that cannot be cured with present antibiotics. These drug resistant bacteria have already found there way to humans – leaving them with serious infections.
The new antibiotics that need to be created to fight these new bacterial infections will be paid for by patients when they buy their super antibiotics. The livestock producers have created a cost in their production methods, that they have dumped on society as a whole, and not solely on the consumers of their products. This breaks down arguments that free trade crusaders make that unrestricted sales of this beef will provide the best outcome. We clearly have a case of significant negative externalities.
A last point to be made is that naturally grown beef and hormone grown beef are different products. If Europe is not willing to produce and sell this product themselves, is it right for North Americans and the W.T.O. to tell them that they must accept this product as the same good as their naturally grown livestock? When we import cars from other countries we mandate that they must meet certain safety and emission requirements that are unique to Canada (e.g.: daytime running head lights etc.). How is the beef issue different? Does the W.T.O ruling make one wonder who the W.T.O is really representing?