Path forward remains for COOL

by Erica Shaffer
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Supporters of COOL hope US, Mexico and Canada reach a compromise.

WASHINGTON – Proponents of the United States' country of origin labeling rule said ample opportunity remains for the US, Mexico and Canada to reach an agreement on the hotly-contested issue.

Speaking for the National Farmers Union, Roger Johnson, president, said WTO members often work together to resolve their differences following a WTO ruling.

“We support that approach to the extent it results in a mutually agreed result that provides consumers meaningful information on the meat products they purchase, including the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, Johnson said in a statement. With the significant interest by consumers in knowing where their food comes from, any other result is not acceptable.”

The Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America (R-CALF USA) argued in support of COOL, saying labeling is necessary to ensure robust competition in livestock and meat markets.

The country of origin of products and services matter in a free and competitive society, the organization said in comments to the US House Committee on Agriculture in March. R-CALF said COOL empowers consumers to choose meat products that are exclusively produced in the US, of partial US origin or of foreign origin.

When a consumer chooses a particular product based on a preferred attribute, that choice translates into a tangible demand signal that travels upstream along the product’s supply chain, R-CALF said. “That demand signal, in turn, tells the supply chain what attributes a products must possess to satisfy consumer demand.”

R-CALF is a producer-only national non-profit trade association for the US cattle industry.

Friends of earth, which also supports COOL, said the WTO ruling denies US consumers the right to know where their meat comes from.

“This latest World Trade Organization ruling against country-of-origin labeling for meat assaults our basic right to know what we are feeding our families,” Lisa Archer, director of Friends of the Earth’s Food and Technology program, said in a statement. “The ruling pulls back the curtain and proves without a shadow of doubt that secretive international trade deals like the Trans-Atlantic and Trans-Pacific agreements will undermine food safety, product labeling standards and essential safeguards.
“The United States should refuse to comply, as it has in the past when WTO decisions are totally unacceptable,” Archer added. “And the US Trade Representative should take food safety and labeling measures off the table in the Pacific and Atlantic trade negotiations.”

But opponents of COOL remain steadfast in their position that COOL is a threat to the US meat industry.

“We have long said that COOL is not just burdensome and costly to cattle producers, it is generally ignored by consumers and violates our international trade obligations,” said Philip Ellis, NCBA president. “Now that the WTO has ruled for a fourth time that this rule discriminates against Canadian and Mexican livestock, the next step is retaliation by Canada and Mexico.

“Retaliation will irreparably harm our economy and our relationships with our top trading partners and send a signal to the world that the US doesn't play by the rules. It is long past time that Congress repeal this broken regulation.”

Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz previously has noted his country's intention to impose retaliatory tariffs against the US unless lawmakers reverse course on COOL. Canada released a list of targeted US imports in June 2013. Canada is now preparing a request to retaliate, and officials in Mexico also are preparing to impose penalties.

“The United States has used and exhausted all possible means to avoid its international obligations, damaging our highly integrated North American supply chain and hurting producers and processors on both sides of the border,” Ritz and Ed Fast, Minister of International Trade, said in a statement.
“Once again, we call on the United States to cease this harmful policy and repeal COOL’s provisions against beef and pork, removing this unnecessary trade barrier.

“In light of the final ruling, and due to the fact that the United States has continued to discriminate against Canadian livestock products, Canada will be seeking authority from the WTO to use retaliatory measures on US agricultural and non-agricultural products.”

In a joint statement from Canada and Mexico, officials said the two countries will continue to work closely to resolve this issue.

“The amended COOL measure, which causes Canadian and Mexican livestock and meat to be segregated from those of US origin, is damaging to North America’s supply chain and is harmful to producers and processors in all three countries,” according to the statement.

But despite strong opposition to COOL, NFU's Johnson said the US ultimately will decide how and whether to implement the WTO ruling.

“While those who have opposed giving consumers more information on where their meat products are from have focused on potential retaliation, retaliation is relevant only if the parties cannot reach an agreement on how to move forward and then only after an arbitration process,” Johnson said. “And the amount of any retaliation is by definition speculative at best and aimed to raise alarm where none is warranted.

“Indeed, looking at the recent report from Dr. Robert Taylor at Auburn Univ., there is significant evidence indicating that any harm to our trading partners has in fact been negligible at most,” Johnson added.

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