The Beef Hormone Controversy

By Renée Bald and Bill Bigelow

The free trade gospel insists that when it comes to global commerce, all that matters is the product. Process doesn’t count. One shirt may be produced in wretched sweatshop conditions. Another shirt may be produced by well-paid union labor in safe conditions. No matter: Under World Trade Organization regulations, nations may not “discriminate” on the basis of the process that brought the shirt to the marketplace. A shirt is a shirt is a shirt.

These principles are also applied to food. Imports of hormone-treated beef may not be outlawed, because beef is beef – unless definitive scientific proof exists to show that one kind of beef is harmful. Countries may not act on possible safety hazards – that is, they may not apply what is called the “precautionary principle.”

This debate activity focuses on merely one component of free trade in agricultural products. There are more: Should nations be allowed to keep out cheap imported food (often grown on huge corporate farms) in order to protect the livelihood of small farmers and the integrity of rural communities? Should a nation be able to assert its right to be agriculturally self-sufficient, by either subsidizing its own agricultural sectors or even excluding cheaper (corporate-grown) food from elsewhere? Is food simply a commodity, or is it an integral part of cultures that may need protection from the “free market”?

Note: For more background on one piece of this debate – the issue of beef safety and the political economy of meat – we recommend Ruth Ozeki’s extraordinary novel My Year of Meats. Although it may contain too many sexual situations to be used with most K-12 students, parts of it could be reproduced for classroom use. It’s funny, astute, and utterly engrossing. Another valuable book is Fast Food Nation: The Dark Side of the All-American Meal, by Eric Schlosser.


The roles on the following pages just skim the surface of this controversy, one in which, not surprisingly, in 1998 the WTO sided with the United States and its beef industry.

There are many ways of organizing classroom debates. One option is to distribute both roles to each student and to read aloud the summary of the controversy – boxed at the top of the role sheets. Students might work in small groups, preparing arguments for both positions – U.S. executives and European consumers. Then students can count off into two groups, one representing each role. The class divides in half and the debate begins.

You might assign half the class as executives and the other half to be E.U. consumers. Allow them to read the roles, but then provide students with some time to do further research on the issue. There are a number of valuable websites, some of them indicated below, where students can find more information.

Before beginning the debate, you might select several students from each side, get them to pledge neutrality, and allow them to hear the debate as a dispute-resolution panel. Perhaps parents or other teachers could be enlisted to serve as a panel. Decide whether or not they will operate on WTO decisionmaking criteria (i.e., narrowly-defined free trade principles) or broader criteria that could take into account a bigger picture.

WEBSITE RESOURCES – Food First. Oakland, California. – Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy.

meat/ – Organization for the meat and poultry industries. – Action on genetically-modified foods and other food safety issues. – The Ecologist magazine; worthwhile articles. – The International Forum on Globalization: critical resources on global trade issues. – The World Trade Organization, headquartered in Geneva, Switzerland. – The U.S. government’s trade mission to the WTO.

Renée Bald teaches at Lincoln High School in Portland, Oregon.

Student Handout


[for layout box this:] Issue to Debate: The European Union has banned the use of hormones in its food industry (for example, in milk and meat products), claiming that hormones could have adverse effects on human health. The United States and Canada, whose industries regularly use hormones in the production of meat and milk products, argue that there is insufficient evidence to warrant banning their food from Europe. They say that without positive proof of harmful effects, the European Union is guilty of an unfair trade practice.

Be it resolved: The European Union is guilty of an unfair trade practice.]

You are a concerned citizen of the European Union. In 1989, you along with many others designed a law that banned the sale of beef from cattle that have been raised using artificial growth hormones. Recently U.S. beef farmers and their agro-chemical partners have challenged your law claiming that it’s an “unfair trade practice” because the law discriminates against certain beef-producers.

Forgive the pun, but that’s bull. There is nothing unfair about your law – nothing unfair about wanting to eat safe food. This law was designed to protect people from the possible health risks associated with hormone-injected beef. People like you also wanted to preserve the more natural farming and ranching methods used in rural communities throughout Europe – not a bad idea considering the amount of chemicals used on so many farms around the world these days. Besides, this law applies equally to both European and U.S. cattle raisers. It’s only “discriminatory” in that it allows healthy practices and outlaws questionable ones.

Do U.S. consumers really know how beef makes its way to their dinner tables? Hundreds of cattle are corralled into steel pens called feedlots. There is no room for the animals to move around. They have no shelter and no grass on the ground. Their grain diets and the hormones implanted under their skin cause the cattle to grow huge. The rancher is then able to take the animal to market sooner. Since their digestive systems were designed for grass, not grain, some of the cattle’s internal organs literally fall out. According to eye-witness press reports, ranchers sometimes just stuff the innards back in and sew up the wound. No one should want to eat imported American meat.

You base your arguments on what is called the “precautionary principle” – in other words, it is better to be safe than sorry. Basically, the precautionary principle says that a product should stay off the market until it is proven that it is not harmful. It calls for policy makers to err on the side of caution when there is not yet scientific certainty about potential threats to human health and the environment. For instance, in the 1960s, pregnant women were routinely given the sedative drug thalidomide. It worked wonders stopping morning sickness, but had the terrible effect of causing serious birth deformities in children. Had the U.S. Food and Drug Administration applied the “precautionary principle” more carefully, this tragedy could have been avoided.

This is precisely why you want to keep the ban on hormone-injected beef. There is a growing body of research that finds some of the hormones used by the beef industry cause cancer. The EU’s scientific committee has stated that one specific hormone known as 17 beta-oestradiol “has to be considered a complete carcinogen” while other hormones can provoke a series of health problems.

Children are most at risk. According to a University of Illinois study, a typical eight-year old boy eating two hamburgers made with hormone-injected beef would, following the meal, increase his level of female sex hormones by 10%. These hormone residues are also suspected to be linked to premature sexual development in young girls. Other studies have found that lifelong exposure to certain hormones in meat seriously increases the risk of breast and reproductive cancers. Since 1950 the United States has seen a huge increase in these cancers.

These findings don’t surprise European consumers like yourself. After all, even the agro-chemical company that produces the hormone injections, Monsanto, has found evidence that the use of the hormone rBST (bovine somatotropin) increases the rate of udder cell infection by 20%! Udder cell infection leads to mastitis in cows. Basically, their mammary glands become inflamed, causing pus clots in milk, swollen red udders and, in some cases, terminal sickness. If that’s happening to the cattle, you don’t want to wait around to see the possible hazards to humans.

Corporate and U.S. government officials want to lower standards and regulations to make international trade “freer.” The policy of “free trade,” however, needs to be seriously questioned. As you see it, “free trade” means corporations are free to make a profit without consideration of people’s health and the environment. It’s disgraceful that one government would try to overturn laws made democratically in another country.

When you purchase beef or go out to dinner, you want assurance that your meal is good for you. There is no reason to expose yourself or anyone else to higher levels of health risk. The ban on hormone-injected beef is not only a fair law, it is a necessary law to protect you and your children.
Cattle Business/Agro-chemical Executives

[Box this: Issue to Debate: The European Union has banned the use of hormones in its food industry (for example, in milk and meat products), claiming that hormones could have adverse effects on human health. The United States and Canada, whose industries regularly use hormones in the production of meat and milk products, argue that there is insufficient evidence to warrant banning their food from Europe. They say that without positive proof of harmful effects, the European Union is guilty of an unfair trade practice.

Be it resolved: The European Union is guilty of an unfair trade practice.]

You are executives of the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and the agro-chemical company, Monsanto. U.S. beef passes the strictest guidelines set by the Food and Drug Administration. For decades your industries have provided United States citizens and foreign people with delicious beef, the foundation of any nutritious meal. The quality of your product is recognized the world over. And you’re proud of this.

But for the past several years, U.S. beef has been under attack. Some citizens of the European Union successfully worked to pass a law outlawing the importation of hormone-injected beef. These EU citizens mistakenly think that the use of hormones is a health risk. Not only is this law based on fear and a lack of hard science, it’s discriminatory, and is a blatantly unfair trade practice. The European Union is attempting to ban your product while there is no hard scientific evidence that hormone-injected beef is a health hazard to human beings.

It’s true that the use of the hormone rBST may increase the rate of infection in cattle. However, that is an infection in cows, not people. There have been numerous scientific studies and evaluations, including those conducted by the EU and CODEX (the international food and safety standard setting body) that have supported your position that beef from cattle treated with certain approved growth hormones poses no public health risk.

You inject hormones in your cattle because it helps you run your business more efficiently. You use six different types of hormones: three are natural sex hormones (testosterone, progesterone and oestradiol-17 beta) and the others are synthetic sex hormones. These substances help increase muscle and fat growth. Hormones allow your cattle to grow faster and produce more milk. This type of efficiency allows you to provide consumers with beef and milk at lower prices. The EU law is a threat to free trade in general and to your business in particular. Of course, that’s the EU intent: They are afraid of American competition – afraid that consumers there will want your cheaper beef.

International trade laws must promote free trade. Countries should not be allowed to ban a product until they have absolute proof that the product is dangerous. Europeans complain that the industry needs to take more precautions. Your own kids eat this beef. The President of the United States eats this beef. If the beef were unsafe, the U.S. government would say so.

What’s at issue here is that the Europeans are complaining about the process used to raise beef in the United States. But what’s important is the end product, not the process. This is an absolutely key distinction.

EU citizens insist on applying the “precautionary principle.” The “precautionary (better to be safe than sorry) principle” is dangerous in that it limits corporations’ ability to find better and more efficient ways of producing goods. There is risk associated with every single economic venture and scientific discovery, every single new innovation. But the risk of humans being hurt by hormone-injected beef is too small to justify the EU ban on American beef. Governments must prove that a scientific justification exists for a law’s action. If not, any country could try to limit importation of goods just to benefit their own business. That’s protectionism – not free trade.

Free trade benefits everyone. Let’s let people choose freely. If an individual wants to eat beef without hormones, so be it. You’re not forcing anyone to buy your beef, you just want to make sure that they have the right to do so if they choose. When your product is unfairly banned, consumers lose that right. It’s not fair that millions of consumers – or the companies that serve them – must suffer because of people’s fear. To you this is a simple question of freedom.

Last Updated Spring 2002