Food Law News - EU - 1998

13 March 1998: HORMONES / WTO - WTO Dispute Settlement Body meeting : EU states its intention on hormones

Commission Press Release, 13 March 1998

WTO Dispute Settlement Body meeting : EU states its intention on hormones

The European Union (EU) recalled today that it would fulfill its international obligations under the World Trade Organisation (WTO) concerning prohibition of hormone-treated meat and meat products. At a meeting in the Dispute Settlement Body of the WTO held in Geneva, the EU announced that it will implement the WTO Appellate Body ruling adopted on 13 February 1998. The EU will now carry out a complementary risk assessment. This will focus specifically on the potential health risks from hormone residues in meat and in meat products. Meanwhile, taking into account its primary concern of health protection of consumers and safety of food, the EU will retain the prohibition in place.

The Appellate Body of the WTO had been called upon by the EU to review the conclusions of the earlier WTO Panel. The EU expressed its satisfaction with the Appellate Body's report adopted on 13 February 1998. For the first time since the adoption of the Sanitary and Phytosanitary (SPS) Agreement in 1995, this provided a number of fundamental guidelines for risk assessment under the Agreement.

The report upheld most of the EU points of appeal. It upheld only one of the Panel's negative findings on the EU ban. This was the finding that the EU ban on hormone-treated meat did not comply with the requirement in Article 5.1 SPS that such a measure be based on an assessment of the risks to human health. The Appellate Body, while recognizing that the scientific evidence presented by the EU was relevant, considered it insufficient, because such evidence focused not specifically enough on the cancer risk arising from the presence in meat of hormone residues used for growth promotion.

The Appellate Body's report clarified also that a risk assessment is not required to be quantified and that it does not have to rely only on the majority or mainstream scientific views. Furthermore, it clarified that a risk assessment can take into account risk which arises from not following good veterinary practice, abuse and difficulties of control and inspection.

In the light of these fundamental clarifications of the WTO rules, the EU will now carry out an additional risk assessment.

This will take into account the most recent scientific knowledge concerning hormones. Recent findings indicate that there is indeed a need for re-evaluation of the old assessments on the human health effects of hormones and hormone residues, on which current international standards are based.

The complementary risk assessment will include the evaluation of existing data in the European Commission's possession, input from all other interested parties and the results of new studies which have to be conducted. It will be achieved with the assistance of an independent body of scientists.

Background of the dispute

Since 1988, the EU bans the use of hormones for growth promoting purposes in meat production. Such prohibition concerns both domestic production and imports.

Contrary to the EU's approach, some other countries allow the use of hormones in cattle for growth promoting purposes. In particular, countries such as the United States allow the use of six hormones. This has led the United States, joined by Canada, to contest the EU prohibition on imports of meat treated with these six substances (these and other countries can however export meat which is guaranteed to have been produced without hormones).

In 1996, these two countries initiated a case under the WTO dispute settlement system against the EU import measures. In August 1997, the WTO Panel charged with the examination of the compatibility of the EU prohibition with WTO rules, and in particular with the WTO Agreement on SPS, had ruled that the EU import prohibition violated three SPS rules. The Panel said that the prohibition was not based on a risk assessment, that it was inconsistent with the level of sanitary protection adopted with regard to different substances which posed the same health risk to humans, and that it was not based on existing international standards adopted by the Codex Alimentarius Commission which the Panel had found to be mandatory.

The EU appealed the report before the WTO Appellate Body, which reversed two out of the three Panel findings. It upheld the finding on risk assessment, albeit with a number of important clarifications.

[For previous news item, see January 1998]

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