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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Hormones, Health Fuel U.S.-Europe Beef War

WECHELDERZANDE, Belgium -- Karel Van Noppen was an investigator who got in the way. He took a bullet in his neck for his efforts.


A simple cross stands where his bloodied body was found. The inscription reads: "Killed for power and money. ... Healthy food was his ideal."


Van Noppen was only a veterinary inspector, but poking into the cattle-raising business in Europe can be dangerous. He was shot to death after warnings from Belgium's "hormone mafia" to stop investigating the illegal and lucrative fattening of cows with hormones.


The European Union is refusing to import hormone-treated American beef, raising cries of trade protectionism from U.S. farmers. European cattlemen are worried, indeed, about U.S. beef pouring onto their market.


But the issue goes far beyond economics. Across Europe, hormone treatment of meat has become a major health and consumer issue, with rumors of hormone use cutting into sales of meat.


U.S. officials see no harm in using some fattening hormones to speed up meat production. And backed with scientific evidence that hormone-treated beef is no health hazard, it is challenging the EU's eight-year ban before the World Trade Organization. Washington estimates U.S. ranchers lose $100 million in sales a year because of the ban.


At the Agribex farm fair in Brussels, few tears are shed over the plight of U.S. farmers and talk turns gloomy as soon as hormones are mentioned.


For the embattled European farmer, the hormone ban has become an economic means as much as a health end.


"Their meat must be blocked," said Hector Blanpain, who raises Charolais cattle in France's Auvergne region. "If it gets in, prices will crash further."


Denis Volkaert of the Flanders' Cattle Union, representing some 13,000 cattle raisers in northern Belgium, said prices have fallen 35 percent over the past two years because of the drop in demand, especially after Van Noppen was murdered Feb. 20, 1995, in Wechelderzande, a farm town 80 kilometers northeast of Brussels.


If the hormone ban is dropped, cheaper production methods will soon swell European output by 20 percent, U.S. beef will further glut the market and hormone-hostile consumers will cut purchases 30 percent more, estimates Honor Funk, a German member of the European Parliament.


In short, the future would be bleak for many of the 3 million cattle raisers in the EU's 15 member nations.