Judging by History, a European Ban on Maine Lobster Might Really Happen

Earlier this year, Sweden complained about finding American lobsters in nearby waters and called for a ban on imports of the crustacean. Last week, the EU took a major step forward in the process for pursuing such a ban when a scientific review body said that Sweden’s complaint has merit. That means that a further review will now be conducted on whether the American lobster is a threat to native European lobsters and whether banning its import is a solution. If the wider review says yes to those questions, then the EU may very well halt all imports of American lobster. The U.S. and Canada exports $200 million worth of lobster to EU countries each year, so a ban could be devastating to the lobster industry.

Unfortunately, the EU does have a history of banning or otherwise restricting U.S. food products for various reasons. There have been serious trade disputes over much more common food items, most notably beef and genetically modified organisms (GMOs). The EU, by banning the import of meat from cows treated with growth hormones, has effectively banned U.S. beef imports since 1981. The history of this dispute is shockingly long, covering multiple arbitrations, consultations, and appeals, as well as a ruling from the World Trade Organization (WTO). As it currently stands, U.S. beef is still banned for import, and the U.S. still imposes retaliatory tariffs on some EU food products. Complicating the matter, the U.S. had banned beef from the EU for fifteen years because of mad cow disease, but that was lifted in January 2015. The GMO story is possibly even more convoluted, and it has also been the source of a trade dispute between the EU and U.S. for years. Now only specifically approved GMO crops are allowed, but millions of tons of those crops are imported, largely for animal feed. A number of countries have banned GMOs from being grown, and all food in the EU containing more than a certain percentage of GMO ingredients must be labeled as such.

It is important to note that the lobster case is different in a number of ways. The first, of course, is that the lobster market, while large, is far smaller than the beef and GMO market. The second is that the justification for potentially banning lobsters is completely different from those two cases. Whereas the bans on growth hormone beef and GMOs were over perceived health risks, the ban on lobster is proposed because of its potential as an invasive species (which a UMaine scientist, for one, disagrees with). As far as I know, this would mark the first time a food product would be banned for import in the EU for that reason.

However, when it comes to environmental policy in particular, the EU is known to err on the side of banning things. They take a fundamentally different approach to policy, one based on the “precautionary principle,” which essentially means they assume something is bad and must be proven to be good. So if there is any doubt whether or not American lobsters could pose a threat to European lobsters, the government is going to lean towards banning them by default. While the EU technically takes this approach to all regulation, in reality they aren’t much more precautionary than the U.S. on average, only on certain things. But when it comes to food—and particularly the environment—they have no problem banning something.

Of course, the U.S. won’t let American lobster get banned without a fight. Maine’s congressional delegation condemned the recent decision, and earlier they sent a letter to the EU along with other members of Congress from New England protesting Sweden’s complaint. If the EU follows through with a ban, the lawmakers will almost certainly push for the case to go to the WTO.


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Phoenix McLaughlin

About Phoenix McLaughlin

Phoenix McLaughlin works at the National Endowment for Democracy helping to foster political development in Asia. Phoenix lives in Washington, D.C. now, but was born and raised in Norway, Maine. In between, he has studied and/or worked in Colorado, Nepal, India, France, Ethiopia, and Augusta. All opinions expressed on this blog are solely his own and do not represent his current or former employers.