Consumer organizations in Western Europe are celebrating their first multinational victory as the agriculture ministers of the nine European Community countries bowed before a spreading boycott of veal and agreed to ban the use of hormones for raising livestock.
The press in France, where the boycott movement started after the discovery this summer of possibly cancer-causing hormones in French veal exported to Italy as baby food, hailed the community decisions as the result of a successful consumer rebellion throughout Western Europe.
Italy reacted to the revelation that at least eight-tenths of French veal was being illegally injected with growth hormones by banning its import altogether -- a ban that was in technical violation of European Common Market regulations.
French consumer organizations reacted by the call for a boycott. The press was full of outraged stories showing how calves were being raised industrially in inhumane conditions after being snatched from their mothers. There were hosts of photos of calves tied permanently into feed boxes and never allowed to graze in a pasture.
The French boycott spread to Britain and Belgium. Slaughterhouses were butchering from 30 to 70 percent fewer animals, depending on the establishment. French livestock farmers, who provide half the veal produced for export inside the European Community, were confronted with the prospect of economic disaster.
Although implementing regulations must still be worked out after last night's decision by agriculture ministers, the European measure appears to go well beyond the U.S. federal ban on female estrogen hormones, principally the hormones DES, banned early this year after long procedural wrangles, as a presumed carcinogenic substance.
Some synthetic hormones are still legal in the United States, and a representative of the U.S. Meat Export Federation in London said that a total European ban on all hormones could hurt U.S. sales. He said that, contrary to practices in many other industries, U.S. cattlemen had adopted a total ban on DES and were not using it even in animals meant for export. U.S. industry is coming under increasing criticism in Europe for exporting or locally manufacturing products banned or modified in the U.S. market for health reasons.
The veal boycott was quick to catch on in France, not only for health reasons but also because of widespread complaints that the meat for which France was widely reputed in Europe no longer had much taste.
French Agriculture Minister Pierre Mehaignerie had been denouncing the demands of the consumer organizations as excessive and pleading the case for the use of natural hormones, even though their use was against French law. The corps of meat and livestock inspectors in France is so small that they rarely caught violators and were apparently not being encouraged to do so.
But a call three weeks ago for a nine-nation boycott by Western Europe's Federal Consumers Union apparently convinced the authorities that the sharp fall in meat prices was just the beginning, a daunting prospect in a France whose powerful farm electorate is being wooed from all sides as the country prepares for what looks like a close presidential election campaign.
Farm and veterinary groups joined in the statements of satisfaction, indicating that they were prepared to live with the ban provided it is really community-wide and no country's farmers get a competitive advantage in the European Community by being allowed to use hormones in meat for export.
The effect of the ban, however, is likely to make meat generally more costly and perhaps scarcer. The limiting factor on meat production in Western Europe, a farm expert noted, is good grazing land. So the French housewives' cry of victory, as they contemplate tastier veal, may turn to new outrage when the butcher presents the bill for calves allowed to grow slower on their mothers' milk.