Post-Brexit beef at the WTO


I often find myself thinking about beef.

We don’t eat much American beef in the UK. One of the reasons for this is because the EU bans the import of beef sourced from cows pumped up with growth hormones and, well, the majority of American beef has been pumped up with growth hormones.

It’s a contentious issue that rears its head every few years or so. Recently, it hit the headlines in the context of EU-US trade negotiations (TTIP). The US said that they wanted to see the ban lifted as part of the agreement; protesters across the EU lost their shit; the EU reiterated its commitment to upholding the ban. So it goes.

In 1996 the US and Canada took this issue to arbitration at the WTO. They argued that the ban was unscientific, and that it was unfairly discriminating against their producers. In 1997, they won.

But the EU didn’t lift the ban.

The EU instead agreed to increase the import quota offered to the US and Canada for non-treated beef as a compromise.

The decision, however, still stands.

It is therefore not certain that were we to exit the EU (and EEA) and become a distinct entity at the WTO, the UK would still be able to maintain the ban.

I have opinions on this, but decided to run it past my friend and general trade know-it-all, Hosuk (@leemakiyama):

Me: WTO dispute on hormone beef. EU lost, gave US/Canada bigger quota on untreated beef. Guessing UK would have to resolve this in order to clarify WTO status?
Hosuk: Yes and no. All quotas must be split between EU and UK.
M: Sure, but UK would face a decision on whether to keep paying off the US (which the US/Canada would have to agree too as well?) or allow the import of their hormone treated beef?
H: Indeed. The question is not so much WTO but what post Brexit SPS regime [measures taken to protect humans, animals and plants from diseases, pests or contaminants] would look like.
If it stays the same: US/Canada has two strategies, either claim UK is bound by ruling according to Vienna convention on the principle of succession. Or, launch a separate case against the UK. Either way, UK is f-ed (Given the ban remains, and Canada and the US actually cares).
To get out of this pickle the UK would probably offer a hormone-free beef quota to them, or something else.

So there it is, we could potentially keep the ban in place — so long as we agree to take on our share of the EU’s compromise quota — but the whole thing will likely prove a royal, potentially expensive, pain in the rump.

Perhaps a better question is – what with Liam Fox’s apparent desire to strike a trade deal with the US as soon as possible – whether restricting the import of hormone treated beef will even be a priority in the first place?


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