The idyllic country of Switzerland, known for its Alps, yodelers and complete neutrality, are inadvertently shedding their neutral image in a way most people would never have expected. Though it may not have been the original intention, the Swiss are taking the European Union's (EU) line and are set to ban hormone-treated beef sometime in 2007.

It's not that Switzerland is morally, scientifically or otherwise opposed to hormone-treated beef. In fact, though Swiss imports only about 3-4% of their beef from the U.S. and Canada, they have until now allowed hormone-treated beef imports when accompanied by a declaration.

But this “bureaucratic snafu,” as described by an American trade diplomat in Switzerland, is a result of the tiny country trying to adapt to the world of globalization.

Switzerland's political neutrality keeps it from joining larger organizations like the EU; its citizens rejected EU membership in 1992. But because the country is surrounded by EU countries, it's adapted many EU policies over the years, including more than 80 bilateral agreements. Swiss citizens can even travel and work in the EU like anyone from an EU country — an example of their close relationship.

According to Marcel Falk, spokesman for the Federal Veterinary Office in Bern, Switzerland and the EU agreed to adopt the same import policies in an attempt to further streamline their trade relations. The question of hormone-treated beef is part of that.

When it comes to beef hormones, the U.S. and the EU have been embroiled in an ongoing legal battle since the 1990s. That's when the EU decided to effectively ban all beef treated with growth hormones, claiming the hormones were bad for human health. At the time, the dispute included beef from Canada, but Argentina was later added to the list.

The World Trade Organization (WTO) subsequently ruled the EU didn't provide sufficient scientific evidence of their health claims and ruled in favor of the U.S. The trade body also allowed the U.S., and later Canada and Argentina, the right to impose trade sanctions against the EU until it lifted the ban.

More than a decade later, the EU now claims the U.S. and others are imposing sanctions, and have dragged them back to the WTO in an effort to get the sanctions lifted or reduced. According to Nuch Nazeer, WTO spokesman in Geneva, this is new legal territory because no one has ever claimed “illegal sanctions” before.

These kinds of disputes are usually handled in six months, sometimes lasting as long as a year, but these new hearings have dragged on more than two years. The WTO even went as far as opening up the hearings to the public, something never done before.

Through all this, the U.S. claims the EU is still banning its beef, while the EU says it has the science to prove it can, but that is all beside the point. And the legal wrangling gets murkier from there.

According to Raimund Raith, the EU's WTO legal counsel in Geneva, the report from the WTO is expected in March. Technically, that's a confidential ruling until it's been translated into the WTO's three official languages (much easier than the EU's 20 official languages), which takes about two months. After that, he says, the parties have 60 days to file an appeal, which could extend the process another six months. So figure another year until the issue is settled.

In the meantime, Switzerland still has to align its policies with the EU, which bans hormone-treated beef. The U.S. diplomat in Bern says the Swiss pride themselves in never having brought a dispute case against a country in the WTO, and no one ever having done the same to them, yet they're walking into this dispute willingly.

Falk says Switzerland could impose the ban as early as April, dependent on ongoing side negotiations between the U.S. and the EU about the ban and what the WTO ends up deciding, but the path is in no way clear. In the end, it's up to the Swiss Federal Council, which may vote on the issue as early as January 2007.

According to USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service in Geneva, the Swiss have said they'll continue to accept the current USDA export certificates until further notice, and maybe even into the autumn. So exports to Switzerland will likely continue until then. Or not.

Meghan Sapp is a U.S. journalist based in Brussels, Belgium.