Thursday, March 03, 2005

Public Health in Protectionist Clothing

The recent controversy over lifting the import ban on Canadian beef presents some important trade-related questions. Beef producers in the United States (of which I am one, albeit in a small way) are the short-term beneficiaries of these import restrictions. By limiting competing supplies of beef coming from Canadian cattle, prices for both feeder cattle and fed cattle in the United States are presumably kept higher than they otherwise would be. (True enough, cattle feeders could potentially benefit from higher margins in feeding Canadian cattle that are discounted in price, but that margin depends on the fed markets holding up at higher levels.)

To the extent that sound science supports the ban, these higher prices may also reflect a qualitative difference: consumers would presumably pay more for a product that is deemed safer. However, the science in this case is dubious. Industry practices have made it extremely unlikely for BSE-infected foodstuffs to become a part of the food supply. No known case of the human variant of BSE has ever been found in the United States; nor do public health experts expect one to emerge as a result of eating meat (as opposed to brain tissue that was widely eaten in Great Britain prior to its experiences with BSE). Steps far short of an absolute ban could conceivably address public health concerns here. (Country of origin labeling might also be useful here to ensure that consumers can make their own choices about beef quality.)

Agriculture Secretary Mike Johanns’ move to lift the ban and provide for limited trade in Canadian cattle was carefully considered and supported by sound science. However, this has ruffled the feathers of some cattlemen (how’s that for a mixed metaphor?), who have enlisted thirty senators to sign on to continue the ban. A federal district court also recently intervened, holding up implementation of the regulations lifting the ban.

This movement to continue the Canadian trade ban may end up biting cattlemen in the rear end if, as facts indicate, they are using public health as mere cover for a protectionistic foundation. Policymakers and producers alike should recall that health concerns have also been used as a tool against U.S. farmers without a sound scientific basis. Is Japan doing the same thing for our beef? European Union objections to the importation of genetically modified grains would seem to be another prominent example. What goes around comes around – and bites you where it hurts. Cloaking protectionistic trade policies in the mantle of public health is bad policy and bad politics.

Edward A. Morse
Professor of Law
Creighton University

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