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What’s the Beef with Our Chicken? The Fight over Europe’s Common Agricultural Policy

While it is widely recognized that the Cold War was a time of heavy diplomatic involvement and trials, few are familiar with another ongoing transatlantic war during the same period:  The Chicken War.

The 1957 Treaty of Rome created the European Economic Community, which strived to create an open market throughout Europe. Among this treaty’s pinnacle contributions was the establishment of a common agricultural policy (CAP), which would establish agricultural subsidies for member countries, as well eliminate internal tariffs. Today, CAP is still one of the European Union’s most highly debated policies.

The United States, Europe’s biggest supporter at the time, was a major proponent of CAP, however not without limitations. The creation of a single agricultural market in Europe would subsequently mean short-term losses for American imports. New barriers to trade would be introduced, hindering U.S. trade relations with some of its largest partners.

American chicken farmers, in particular, were in for a rude awakening according to Ernest Koenig, the Assistant Agricultural Attaché for the U.S. Mission to the European Union from 1964-1973. Koenig was interviewed by Quentin Bates in August 1995. J. Robert Schaetzel, the Ambassador to the European Economic Community from 1966-1972 Vladimir Lehovich, Ambassador’s Aide from 1969 to 1971 echoed these concerns, noting that little has changed over the development of CAP in his 2002 interview with Charles Stuart Kennedy.

You can read about the clash the U.S. and Europe had over ozone levels in negotiating the Montreal Protocol. Learn more about the creation of the EU.


“The Chicken War lingered on for many years”

Ernest Koenig, Asst Agricultural Attaché for the U.S. Mission, 1964-1973

KOENING:  I should also mention the so-called “chicken war.” America was exporting broilers and other chicken products to Germany. Exports were growing. U.S. poultry products found a rapidly growing market outlet in Germany, also because the price of American poultry was much lower than that of German or Dutch products.

When the EEC [European Economic Community] began to implement the common agricultural policy, German impediments to the importation of U.S. poultry products were growing. The U.S. protested frequently and vehemently against these German, i.e. Common Market, import measures. American poultry exporters had strong political backing at home. Thus the so-called chicken war was elevated to a high political level. Finally President Kennedy approached Chancellor [Konrad] Adenauer in this matter.

In spite of all the many American efforts to lower the common market import barriers, they became more and more restrictive. Our poultry exports began to fall. The U.S. finally brought the matter before the GATT [General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade] which agreed that the Common Market countries owe compensation to the U.S. This compensation assumed the form of increased U.S. import duties on a number of EEC export products.

Thereafter, the chicken war lingered on for many years. It had many hysterical and hilarious aspects. One of them touched food legislation….

“The Germans had alleged our poultry was susceptible to salmonella or that we were feeding hormones to chickens”

While in Brussels I was more and more occupied with a problem, which I had already encountered in Germany. The Germans had promulgated a new food law, which diverged from ours in several respects. Already during the chicken war, the Germans had alleged that our poultry was particularly susceptible to salmonella or that we were feeding hormones to chickens. This was pure propaganda, but had nevertheless a certain effect and impacted on the sale of American products in Germany.

However, food legislation that influenced sales from third countries became a serious trade issue, when the Member states of the Community were obliged to harmonize their own food legislation, in order to avoid that, food norms and standards become an obstacle to intra-community trade.

All U.S. fresh, dried and canned fruits, citrus, poultry, meat offals, wine and many other products were affected by these measures. There were even threats to stop imports of American grain, unless it was accompanied by a certificate indicating that it was free of DDT [a common pesticide later banned] residues.

I was, of course, able to understand and handle all the legal and trade policy aspects of these new developments, but I was not competent to discuss their scientific merits. [The Federation of American Scientists] therefore appointed an [Agricultural Research Service] scientist as Assistant Agricultural Attaché to the Brussels office, who dealt exclusively with food law problems.

The new food legislation did not only cover the wholesomeness or risks entailed by additives and pesticides, but also the labeling of food products and the standard sizes of packaging. The problem of labeling became easier, when English became one of the official languages of the Community.

I spent a lot of time on food legislation, more so as many American business representatives visited our office and solicited our assistance in this field…

Hence, representations by my office (not in the form of protests but as expression of our opinion) became an avenue of approach for U.S. food industries in order to convey their views and ideas to the EEC Commission.

“The chicken war was indeed a war”

Vladimir Lehovich, Ambassador’s Aide, 1969 to 1971

LEHOVICH:  There were a number of trade skirmishes and wars going on at that time. There was an awful lot of lobbying and high politics on behalf of soybeans, American agricultural interests.

It’s no coincidence that Senator [Charles] Percy of Illinois, which is a major soybean producer, was one of our constant visitors. In fact, anybody who was big in certain kinds of commodity region was very much on our list.

The chicken war was indeed a war and it centered on different ways to keep chickens out of Europe — American chickens.

Some of the ways of keeping them out was the finer points of how they’re plucked and cleaned, and whether it’s the most hygienic or the second most hygienic way of doing this. I don’t want to get into whether we’re talking about spin, chilled, or hot water cleaning or other things

At that time, there was another wonderful thing, even more exciting than the chicken wars as a display of how governments make up great structures to do very simple things.

The story though of how one looks at European integration, economic integration in the case of the European Communities and the Common Market, political integration, the growth of a European strength in NATO, these are all recurring stories….

What’s really fascinating is how much of the period since World War II the United States has managed to keep a very long-term perspective on Europe. It waivers and then it gets strong and it gets weak. But it’s something which has ups and downs, but continues to have strong life.

“Now we have on each side representatives who recognize that an economic war would do unbelievable damage to each side”

Robert Schaetzel, Ambassador to the EEC from 1966-1972

SCHAETZEL: Because of the importance of Europe and America to each other and the level of trade between Europe and the United States, you have a breeding ground for conflict.

Having spent so many years of my life being involved in international trade, I know there’s no way you can avoid these conflicts. Hence, the indispensability of, first, GATT before and now the World Trade Organization.

We’re very lucky, because now we have on each side representatives who are sophisticated, knowledgeable, and who recognize that an economic war between the two would do unbelievable damage to each side….

[T]he Chicken War…had to take place without a World Trade Organization. You did have the GATT but we did not have the system that we now have.

I’m still optimistic that we’re smart enough, but, what we have to do to bring the Congress along. That’s difficult under any circumstances and particularly when you get into the field of international trade….

I think a responsibility for anyone in the position, I or others had was to be opposed, intellectually as well, I suppose from a policy standpoint, to a really highly protective system that involved what was called the Common Agricultural Policy.

We saw this as something not only harmful to American interests in terms of capacity to penetrate the European market but also something which really wasn’t that beneficial in general to the European population.

The remarkable thing to me now is…how little has changed. Efforts have been made to really bring about a modification of the CAP, but it’s been minimal and it’s been fought every inch of the way.