WASHINGTON – Late last week, the American Meat Institute told the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative that mandatory country-of-origin labeling (C.O.O.L.) violates the U.S. international trade obligations and the U.S. must honor these obligations. The comments were provided in response to a Dec. 4 Federal Register notice.

Late in 2009, Canada and Mexico filed a case against the U.S. with the World Trade Organization, a move that came as no surprise given those countries’ opposition to the labeling law when it was under consideration by Congress.

Equitable enforcement of international trade rules is a high priority for everyone and that all too often, market access for U.S. meat products has been threatened or cut off with little or no legitimate justification, said Mark Dopp, A.M.I. senior vice president of regulatory affairs and general counsel.

“American challenges to these actions have been based upon the rights provided under international trade agreements,” he said. “These challenges will continue, as demonstrated by a recent limitation to an important market for beef. Critical to the United States’ ability to enforce successfully World Trade Organization [W.T.O.] and North American Free-Trade Agreement [N.A.F.T.A.] obligations is consistency in U.S. behavior and actions. In that regard, the United States’ credibility is undermined when U.S. legislation violates America’s commitments pursuant to those international agreements.

“In the instant case, the U.S. C.O.O.L. requirements, as provided for in the 2002 Farm Bill and as implemented through regulations that became effective March 16, 2009, are not consistent with U.S. obligations under both W.T.O. and the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade [G.A.T.T.] and N.A.F.T.A,” he added.

C.O.O.L. is inconsistent with trade agreements because of its discriminatory effect on imported meat and imported live animals, A.M.I. relayed in a news release. The U.S. must ensure that the products of other countries “imported into the territory of [the United States]…be accorded treatment no less favorable than that accorded to like products of [U.S.] origin in respect of all laws…affecting their internal sale,” he said.

C.O.O.L. affects the internal sale of meat derived from foreign animals in the U.S. by creating notable disadvantages in selling imported foreign meat, as well as selling “foreign” animals to U.S. meat packing facilities, according to Mr. Dopp.

C.O.O.L. is also not consistent with the W.T.O. Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (T.B.T.), he continued.

“Indeed, the U.S. government has repeatedly stated C.O.O.L. ‘is not a food safety or animal-health measure. Likewise, C.O.O.L. is not a ‘national security requirement’ nor does C.O.O.L. have as its purpose preventing ‘deceptive practices.’ Neither sponsors of the legislation nor U.S. government agencies have made such a claim,” Mr. Dopp said.

The stated objective of C.O.O.L. is to provide ‘consumer information,’ but A.M.S. found that the “expected benefits from implementation of this rule are difficult to quantify.