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French-American Commercial Feuds (2/5): America Goes Crackers with Roquefort Tariffs

Franco-American history features a number of commercial and diplomatic disputes, from the “chicken war” in the 1960s to Donald Trump’s recent declarations about taxing steel and aluminum imported from Europe. With its boycotts and protectionist policies, we explore these conflicts through five episodes looking at the history of certain controversial products.

Episode 2: Hormone-Grown Beef vs. Roquefort

Europe bowed to public opinion in 1988 and placed a ban on meat from cattle fed with growth hormones. The United States and Canada were directly affected by this policy and introduced retaliatory measures as result. The ensuing stand-off — a “gloriously messy food fight,” according the Guardian — continues to hang over transatlantic relations.

An Embargo on Hormone-Fed Meat

The United States and Canada filed a complaint with the Dispute Settlement Body of the recently created World Trade Organization (WTO) in 1996. Despite the procedure, the 11,500 tons of beef exported to Europe annually ground to a halt overnight. Europe was sanctioned but refused to raise the ban. Instead, it justified its decision by citing sanitary reasons and concerns as to the health of meat consumers.

The Clinton administration reacted by imposing 100% taxes on the price of French Roquefort cheese. In 1999, some 60 other European products also saw their export prices doubled, including French shallots, foie gras, truffles, and mustard, Italian sparkling water, Irish oats, and grape juice. The annual customs duties generated a total of 116.8 million American dollars and 11.3 million Canadian dollars.

This “revenge” is both legal and provided for within international trade agreements, says Cécilia Bellora, economist at the CEPII, a French institute for international economic research. “Modern economic law provides for several trading defense tools to use against any partner that has committed any illegal wrongdoing.” These “retaliatory” measures allow parties to impose high customs duties on imported products. “Everything was done within the rules of the WTO,” she says.

From Destruction to Reconciliation

Cheesemakers in Aveyron and the French farming union, the Confédération Paysanne, did not see things the same way. Led by farmer and politician José Bové, they destroyed a McDonald’s restaurant under construction in the town of Millau. According to the militants, the fast-food outlet was a symbol of “junk food” and capitalism. The alter-globalist figure traveled to the WTO headquarters in Seattle the same year, delighting the American media by organizing an unauthorized distribution of Roquefort.

The battled raged until just after the end of George W. Bush’s presidency. In January 2009, the U.S. international trade representative announced that Roquefort and truffles were now to be taxed at 300%. This move hoped to pressure Europe into raising the ban on hormone-fed beef, but in vain.

At the time, some 400 tons of Roquefort were exported to the United States annually. The 2009 U.S. presidential election carried with it the hope of reconciliation, and the president of the Midi-Pyrénées region even sent Barack Obama a case of goat cheese for his inauguration.

An agreement was finally signed on May 6, 2009. Customs duties on Roquefort and French mustard were removed (but not those on foie gras). In exchange, Europe committed to increasing quotas of hormone-free U.S. beef raised in acceptable conditions to 20,000 and later 45,000 tons per year. Shoppers can now find Roquefort in American supermarkets for around 28 dollars per pound (compared to 18 euros in France).