Recent weeks have seen further arguments between the US and Canada over beef, and between the US and Japan over beef. Disputes in which one side insists it's operating on food health grounds while the other cries foul are a fact of food industry life. How cynical should we really be about trade disputes? Chris Lyddon reports.

Sean Rickard, senior lecturer in business economics at Cranfield School of Management and a long-time observer of international trade in food, has a long memory. "You could go back to Bovine Somatotropin in milk, which is banned here," he told just-food. "It's used in the rest of the world. Why is it banned here?  Because it would mean fewer dairy farmers."

"Every country gets up to this," he said. "The US found one cow with BSE. So they banned everything from Canada."

To be fair to the US, the USDA is trying to get the border opened again, but an injunction granted by a federal judge in Montana in early March, at the request of the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, has prevented implementation of the USDA's minimal-risk rule, which would re-establish US trade with Canada for live cattle less than 30 months of age.

Scientific basis

Meat company Tyson called the court decision "bad" law and "bad" for consumers and said there was no scientific basis for keeping the border closed.

"The court barely acknowledges that R-CALF is seeking to halt the implementation of a final rule adopted in 2005 after years of careful study and analysis by an agency (USDA) acting within its area of expertise," it said. "Given the risk management system in place between Canada and the United States, there is no basis for barring the importation of cattle less than 30 months of age for slaughter."

In the US dispute with Japan, the argument is the other way round. Japan has banned US beef and US politicians have called for trade sanctions to end the ban. Tsutomu Takebe, secretary general of Japan's ruling Liberal Democratic Party called their threat "preposterous".

"If they want to export to Japan, they obviously have to abide by the Japanese standards," he said. Japan stopped buying US beef in December 2003 after a cow slaughtered in Washington state was found to have BSE.

Health issues are being used to put forward the idea that domestic agriculture has to be protected in a world of food surpluses, said Rickard. "The farm lobby, with the connivance of the government, realised which way the wind was blowing," he said. "There wasn't much chance of arguing that you had to support farming to produce food.  So they argued that the agricultural industry is the defender of the countryside. It's a more justifiable basis for pumping large sums in."

The same argument justified trade restrictions. "Those horrible foreigners don't treat animals like we do," was his tongue-in-cheek version of this justification.

He does accept that there are some occasions when controls are justified.  "If there is a serious health risk in food you've got to ban it," he said. "That should be left to scientists, not politicians." The UK's BSE outbreak had been a good example. "Other countries had to ban British beef over BSE," he said. "The problem is that they are very reluctant to lift the ban."

"Everyone plays this game," he said. "All these things have a large political element. Really the presumption should always be in favour of free trade."

Sean Rickard also attacked the rich countries of the world for using trade barriers against food from some of the poorest countries "If they're going to be helped up the development ladder then food trade has to play a big part," he said. "If we can keep them out we are holding back some of the poorest countries in a rather shameful attempt to keep up the living standards of our farmers."

Playing by the rules

There are recognised international procedures for dealing with health problems defined in the Sanitary and Phytosanitary Measures Agreement, known as SPS, under the World Trade Organisation. In very simple terms you have to be able to justify that there is a danger or risk to human, animal or plant health. You can adopt an internationally recognised standard, one of the three sisters, CODEX, OIE or the FAO's international plant protection convention. They cover human, animal and plant health.

The other way is to provide some evidence that there is a risk. Failing that, the other countries might suspect that this is not a health measure but a trade protection measure. The SPS committee is responsible for the administration.

Countries should notify other members of the WTO if possible in advance, allowing them to comment. Occasionally the committee hasn't been notified as there is not enough time.

If there's an emergency you may not have time to do it, but, for example on aflatoxin the EU regulation was notified and the EU did modify its actual regulation, if not entirely to everyone's satisfaction.

You can try to sort it out in the SPS committee. In extreme cases if a country is not satisfied they can bring a dispute panel. A dispute is possible, but it's extreme.

"There are certainly political issues," Helen Ferrier, food science advisor at the UK National Farmers' Union, told just-food. "There are a lot of instances where for health reasons or moral reasons some countries feel they don't want to use a particular production method and they'll restrict imports of food from countries that do allow it."

"In trade, people are operating with agendas other than human health a lot of the time," she said. "Countries look out for opportunities to promote their own products or to put up barriers to other countries' products. On the science side there are issues that have created a division at European level or even WTO level that aren't based on science, or not backed up by a scientific basis."

CODEX looks at things like food hygiene or food labelling, but those discussions tend to be dominated with countries with the resources to argue, which can even come down to having someone to attend the meeting. "There are issues of resource and political weight that are going to come into play," she said.

One example which has become a big issue in the WTO is genetic modification. "The US thinks that it's ridiculous that Europe, as the US sees it, is not taking any notice of the scientific evidence," she said. "They've got a case and it's being discussed. The WTO decided they needed more scientific advice so it's not allowed to be a purely political decision."

Global market

"There's a global market in food and feed and no one's isolated," she said. Sudan 1 had shown just how complex the world food market is, making any problem international. "Sudan 1 showed the complexity of the process," she said. "It's just very very complicated. It's something really that people don't realise."