Is the US getting a raw deal?

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.

A better negotiating environment will be welcome at the top, but that doesn’t mean European consumers will accept the American products, according to Marie-Helene Fandel, a policy analyst at Brussels’ European Policy Center who specializes in lifestyle issues including the intersection of new technology and health.

“My impression is that the European consumer is very ‘allergic’ to any sort of ‘frankenfood,’” Fandel said, “and that includes hormone-treated beef.” Fandel underscores Europeans’ love of gastronomy as well as their strong ties to traditional farming in predicting further that “the mood is not going in the direction of accepting this kind of food.”

Her hunch seems borne out by journalists’ questions about the deal at a European Commission briefing. They asked how consumers can be confident in the controls and "traceability" applied to U.S. beef now that larger quantities will be on the market, even though the complete ban on hormone-treated beef will remain.

“There is no risk of any imports of meat containing hormones,” Agriculture Commission spokesman Michael Mann said.

“It’s very important for us,” stressed Lutz Gullner, spokesman for the trade commissioner.

Mann also rejected suggestions that the arrival of 20,000 more tons of American beef would hurt European producers. “We don’t think this will destabilize the European market (or) we wouldn’t agree to such a thing,” Mann said. “There will be an increase in imports but they won’t all be arriving at once.”

In fact, European producers should be relieved that the amount of U.S. beef on the market might not rise at all. The majority of U.S. cattle do consume the growth hormones in their feed and it costs producers more to raise hormone-free animals. Last year U.S. farmers used only half the existing quota of 10,000 tons.

And, to be clear, the EU hasn’t given any indication it envisions a different position four years from now, a fact not lost on U.S. lawmakers from cattle-growing states. Republican Senator Chuck Grassley of Iowa said he welcomed the deal, but he also called it disappointing that U.S. meat containing growth hormones though “entirely safe”still “remains locked out of the EU market.”

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