COOL on the chopping block

by Jay Sjerven
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The House Committee on Agriculture on May 20, in a lopsided 38 to 6 vote, approved HR 2393, a bill that would repeal Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements for beef, pork and chicken products. 

Jay Sjerven, Sosland Publishing Co.

Jay Sjerven

The bill was introduced by Rep. K. Michael Conaway of Texas, chairman of the agriculture committee, in response to the May 18 ruling by the Appellate Body of the World Trade Organization that found the COOL requirements as revised in 2013 discriminated against Canadian and Mexican livestock and meat products in violation of international trade rules. The Appellate Body’s ruling was final and opened the way for retaliatory action against American imports by Canada and Mexico.

COOL is a labeling law that requires such retailers as full-line grocery stores, supermarkets and club warehouse stores to notify customers with information regarding where each animal was born, raised and slaughtered. Counting the Appellate Body’s May 18 decision, WTO panels found COOL requirements with regard to livestock and meat products to be non-compliant with US trade obligations four times.

“This bill is a targeted response that will remove uncertainty and restore stability for the United States by bringing us back into compliance,” Conaway told the panel. “We must do all we can to avoid retaliation by Canada and Mexico, and this bill accomplishes that through full repeal of labeling requirements for beef, pork and chicken.”

Rep. Jim Costa of California, the ranking member of the subcommittee on livestock and foreign relations, made the motion for the committee to report the bill favorably to the full House, saying, “With the recent decision by the WTO, we must act rapidly to avoid serious trade barriers being enacted against US agricultural products. This is a good first step toward resolving this issue that has been hanging over the industry for years.”

Only Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, ranking member on the agriculture committee, spoke in opposition to the bill.

“I’m disappointed that the WTO ruled against the United States, but I think repealing COOL is premature,” he said. “Of course no one wants to see retaliation, but it’s important to point out that there are still several steps that have to occur before that would take place.”

Peterson added even if the House of Representatives voted in favor of the bill, a repeal of COOL would be difficult to pass in the Senate.

Sen. Pat Roberts of Kansas, chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, responded to the May 18 WTO ruling against COOL, saying, “I will consider any solution — including repeal regarding meat — that will allow the United States to be WTO-compliant and avoid retaliation from Canada and Mexico. I have long had concerns with COOL for meat. USDA’s attempt to fix COOL was not enough, and we now know that those changes continue to be problematic in the eyes of the WTO. If Congress doesn’t act swiftly, retaliation will wreak havoc on the US economy.

“I have serious concerns that potential remedies suggested, such as the generic label, will not satisfy the Canadians and Mexicans and fail to halt impending retaliation,” Roberts added. “I am working with my colleagues in the U.S. Senate to develop a solution.”

Senate agriculture committee defenders of COOL may prove to be more vociferous than their counterparts on the House agriculture committee. Sen. Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, ranking member on the Senate agriculture committee, said, “Consumers have a right to know where their food comes from, and that’s why I support COOL … If adjustments are needed, we should find a bipartisan path forward that both protects the interests of consumers and encourages international trade.”

Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota said she was disappointed with the WTO ruling because “it could diminish consumers’ ability to make informed decisions about the meat they’re purchasing at their local grocery stores and markets. As I continue to review this ruling, I’ll work to find a bipartisan path forward in the Senate that supports North Dakota ranchers and producers and makes sure this law continues to help families throughout America, while meeting our international trade obligations.”

Last October, Heitkamp was a cosigner with 31 other senators from both parties of a letter urging the Senate Appropriations Committee to reject efforts to weaken or suspend COOL in any future appropriations bills or continuing resolutions. Other members of the agriculture committee to sign the letter in support of COOL were Charles Grassley of Iowa, John Thune of South Dakota, John Hoeven of North Dakota, Kristen Gillebrand of New York, Sherrod Brown of Ohio, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

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