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Is the US getting a raw deal?

Beef accord will keep prices low on coveted Roquefort cheese, but might not help Americans sell more steak.

A piece of French Roquefort blue cheese is displayed in a shop in Paris January 16, 2009. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

BRUSSELS — The European Union and the United States have agreed to take a breather in a decades-long transatlantic trade tiff. The two sides struck a temporary deal lowering Europe's trade barriers on U.S. beef and America's on some of the EU's most notable exports, such as Roquefort cheese.

The agreement — which will not be finalized until it is formally ratified by the U.S. Congress and the parliaments of all 27 EU states — was reached in a phone call Wednesday between EU Trade Commissioner Catherine Ashton and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk. In a joint statement, they described it as an “understanding that provides a pragmatic way forward” and pledged to work to get it finalized as quickly as possible in all relevant capitals.

The truce has been a long time coming. Since the 1980s, the EU has been blocking meat from U.S. cattle fattened with growth hormones, which EU health authorities say pose health risks and can even cause cancer, in the case of one of the hormone estradiol 17. But a 1998 ruling by the World Trade Organization (WTO) determined the EU ban was not acceptable and gave the U.S. the right to impose sanctions on European products in return. Europe still refused to budge.

After negotiations carried out over two presidential terms failed to produce a breakthrough, the Bush Administration retaliated in its last days, levying tariffs to go into effect May 9 that would have increased import costs on products — from truffles to chewing gum — from every EU nation except Britain. In one headline-grabbing example, duties on France’s Roquefort cheese would have tripled, a dire prospect for French farmers accustomed to selling one-fifth of their output of Roquefort to American consumers.

Now, the U.S. will maintain the existing sanctions on European products, which are much lower than the maximum allowed under the WTO decision, but will remove them after three years.

For its part, the EU will allow 20,000 more tons of hormone-free beef into its market duty-free for the next three years and an extra 45,000 tons the fourth year. Both sides agree not to seek WTO mediation on the hormone-treated beef ban for at least 18 months and to try to find a longer-term settlement within four years.

“Reaching an agreement on this issue will be a clear sign of our commitment to working through — and, where possible, resolving — the bilateral disputes in our trade relationship,” said the Ashton-Kirk statement. “We will continue our close cooperation on other outstanding issues in the future.”

While that sounds friendly enough, it may belie the difficulty of those outstanding bilateral disputes. The EU remains opposed to genetically-modified crops, commonly referred to as “frankenfood” here, as well as to meat that has been rinsed with chlorine, both practices considered routine and risk-free in the U.S.