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Karel Van Noppen was an investigator who got in the way. He took a bullet in his neck for his efforts.

A simple cross stands where his bloodied body was found. The inscription reads: "Killed for power and money. . . . Healthy food was his ideal."Van Noppen was only a veterinary inspector, but poking into the cattle-raising business in Europe can be dangerous. He was shot to death after warnings from Belgium's "hormone mafia" to stop investigating the fattening of cows with hormones, an illegal and lucrative business.

The European Union is refusing to import hormone-treated American beef, raising cries of trade protectionism from U.S. farmers. European cattlemen are worried, indeed, about U.S. beef pouring onto their market.

But the issue goes far beyond economics. Across Europe, hormone treatment of meat has become a major health and consumer issue, with rumors of hormone use cutting into sales of meat.

U.S. officials see no harm in using some fattening hormones to speed up meat production. And backed with scientific evidence that hormone-treated beef is no health hazard, it is challenging the EU's 8-year-old ban before the World Trade Organization. Washington estimates American ranchers lose $100 million in sales a year because of the ban.

At the Agribex farm fair in Brussels, few tears are shed over the plight of American farmers and talk turns gloomy as soon as hormones are mentioned.

For the embattled European farmer, the hormone ban has become an economic means as much as a health end.

"Their meat must be blocked," said Hector Blanpain, who raises Charolais cattle in France's Auvergne region. "If it gets in, prices will crash further."

Denis Volkaert of the Flanders' Cattle Union, representing some 13,000 cattle raisers in northern Belgium, added, "The EU farmer cannot permit himself to yield another inch on this."

He said prices have fallen 35 percent over the past two years because of the drop in demand, especially after the Van Noppen slaying on Feb. 20, 1995, in Wechelderzande, a farm town 50 miles northeast of Brussels.

If the hormone ban is dropped, cheaper production methods will soon swell European output by 20 percent, U.S. beef will further glut the market and hormone-hostile consumers will cut purchases 30 percent more, estimates Honor Funk, a German member of the European Parliament.

In short, the future would be bleak for many of the 3 million cattle raisers in the EU's 15 member nations.

"There are too many economic negatives," said Flor Van Noppen, who has taken over the anti-hormone fight from his murdered brother. "We'd be a U.S. colony in a couple of years."

Farmers are backed by consumer organizations, which give more importance to beef free of artificial hormones than to cheap steaks.

Throughout Belgium, butchers have signs advertising hormone-free beef, and the first anniversary of Van Noppen's slaying was marked as a meat-free day in remembrance of him.

Veeakker, a chain selling certified natural meat without hormone additives, is thriving despite higher price tags. That's because doubts are rife about the validity of studies claiming added growth and artificial hormones are no health hazard, said Wim Ver-steden, head of Veeakker.

"Some scientists still say they are harmful," he said. "So relying on science is not such a confidence-building measure."

The EU's Executive Commission puts it more bluntly.

"Consumers don't believe science," spokesman Gerry Kiely said. And as long as there is no guarantee of zero-risk that hormone-treated beef can create or worsen cancer, he expects the World Trade Organization to back the EU in maintaining the ban.

The hormone scare in Europe started in the 1970s when reports from Italy surfaced about youngsters undergoing hormonal changes after eating tainted veal. Veal sales nosedived.

Ever since the ban, stories about hormone dealers selling dangerous "cocktails" to inject into cattle and the "mafia" bribing slaughterhouse inspectors to look the other way have further weakened consumer confidence.

Inspectors and police are fighting an uphill battle, and when dealers are caught, they rarely get a stiff sentence. Fines generally are equivalent to only a few thousand dollars. In December, one hormone dealer in Belgium who had been hit with a rare heavy fine worth $70,000 got it reduced to $18,000 on appeal.

That's hardly a deterrent. The lure of cheating is huge. For a 1,500-pound steer, it takes only three months and $25 to $65 worth of hormones to produce a $1,000 profit in added beef and reduced feed costs.

There are parallels with the drug cartels, Kiely said.

"Nobody in the world has succeeded in getting rid of the drug market," he said. "We have tightened up time and time again on the illegal market for hormones."

The only solution, he said, is to "tighten up and penalize producers or anybody else involved in the trade more severely."