Martin Coughlan: Don't tar all US beef with the same brush - it's not all hormone-treated

Stock: Getty Images
Stock: Getty Images
Martin Coughlan

Martin Coughlan

There is a widely held belief in Ireland that all US beef is hormone-treated. So I went to the primary US beef trade stand in at the recent Anuga trade fair in Cologne, intent on testing this preconception.

My preliminary investigation at one of the Edeka supermarkets in Dusseldorf seemed to back up this idea.

My question to an Edeka butcher working behind the red meat counter as to whether the US beef he had on display was hormone-treated caused some confusion. He eventually admitted he wasn't sure but that it probably was.

But the reality as explained to me by representatives of the US' trade mission to Europe back at the Anuga site turned out to be quite different.

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Yes, the use of artificial growth hormones is permitted in the US, but there is a growing awareness among American consumers about such issues, and this has led to the emergence of a significant non-hormone-based beef production model in many states.

Back in 1989 the EU banned the importation of all beef treated with artificial beef growth hormones. The USA and Canada both challenged this ruling and in 1997 the WTO (World Trade Organisation) found against the EU. In July 1999 the WTO authorised the US to impose annual retaliatory tariffs of close to $117 million on the EU.

In 2009 the European Commission signed a memorandum of understanding which established a duty-free import quota for non-hormone-treated beef from North America. That quota currently stands at 45,000 tonnes, with the US benefiting to the tune of 35,000 tonnes.

The Trump administration is currently attempting to have those retaliatory tariffs reinstated.

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The lasting effect of this dispute appears to be that many EU consumers remain convinced that all US beef is hormone-treated. A misplaced belief, but the EU does not appear to have actively discouraged or corrected it.

A common thread running through many of the beef trade displays at Anuga was the colour black. Black as in black Angus, with the likeness populating many stands.

The Scots had their original Aberdeen variety, and while the US Meat Export Federation portrayed horned Herefords on the cover of its brochure, inside it was all black Angus.

The Argentinians put them up in lights over each of its stands; Nice to Meat International, a big Dutch beef importer, had its Angus Reserve brand, while Mercurio, a family-run Brazilian exporter, had them in grass above their knees.

It's easy to see why: Angus as a breed are tidy, easy calved, cheaply beefed and consistent.

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