World Trade Organization Downs European Health Standards

By Swenarchuk, Michelle | Canadian Dimension, January-February 1998 | Go to article overview

World Trade Organization Downs European Health Standards


Swenarchuk, Michelle, Canadian Dimension


Downs European Health Standards

The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled last August that the European Community (EC) was not entitled to ban the use of growth hormones in the production of beef. It ruled that the ban contravened the rules of the 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT). This action, in response to a complaint by the US and Canadian governments, has dealt a serious blow to the sovereign right of governments to set standards for health protection. The EC has appealed the decision to a WTO appeal body, but environmentalists are not optimistic that the decision will be reversed.

The EC ban on the use of growth hormones in beef was enacted through a series of seven laws in the 1980s to respond to consumer fears of health risks from hormone residues. There had been a major consumer boycott of veal treated with hormones. The laws created a complex regulatory scheme concerning the six hormones at issue: three naturally occurring hormones produced by humans and animals (estradiol-17 beta, progesterone and testosterone) and three artificially-produced (trenbolone, zeranol and melengestrol acetate).

Canada argued that the hormone bans were not consistent with the new requirements for standard setting in the GATT chapter on Sanitary and Phytosanitary Standards (SPS) for plant and animal health. The WTO dispute panel agreed. In its 472-page decision, the first to interpret the SPS chapter, the panel meticulously analyzed every element of the agreement, with very negative results for health and environmental standards.

The panel held that since the EC ban was not based on risk assessment, resulted in unjustifiable distinctions in different situations and was not consistent with international standards developed by the Codex Alimentarius Commission, the ban could not be maintained. Codex is an intergovernmental subsidiary body of the UN Food and Agriculture Organization and the World Health Organization.

The decision entrenches the use of risk assessment in setting standards. Risk assessment is a process of examining known scientific studies of the health impacts of a substance, usually conducted on laboratory animals, and then attempting to quantify the risks to human health from exposure to the substance. There is a lively scientific and academic debate world-wide about the scientific and ethical limitations and biases of risk assessment. There is a widespread belief among environmental and health advocates that risk assessment is a fancy fiction dressed up to allow the continued release of toxins into the air, water and food that humans need.

However, this debate and disagreement over risk assessment was not considered by the WTO panel. Its decision now stands as the official interpretation of the SPS chapter of GATT. In view of the fact that this was also the Canadian position, the decision tells environmentalists and health advocates in Canada that they can expect to meet a solid wall of risk assessment when working for Canadian standards.

The WTO panel rejected a number of important policy arguments advanced by the EC. The EC argued that Codex standards had been adopted by only a slim margin, reflecting the controversial nature of the hormone-residue issue. When these standards were being developed, countries did not know that they would change from being merely advisory to mandatory once the GATT agreement was in place. The WTO panel found these considerations irrelevant. It also rejected the argument that new scientific evidence should be considered to assess whether the Codex standards were sufficient.

This ruling suggests that Codex standards, which cover thousands of substances, are now mandatory standards for all governments, and that they are frozen in time regardless of new scientific research. To change them, one would presumably have to conduct international campaigns at the Codex itself. While the members of Codex are national governments, it is heavily influenced by the large agribusiness corporations that participate in its proceedings. …

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