With President Obama making his first international presidential trip this week -- a one-day jaunt on Feb. 19 to Ottawa, Canada, to meet with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper -- meat processors and livestock producers north of the border hope the meeting might focus attention on issues that could disrupt Canadian-U.S. meat and livestock trade.

The trade relationship between Canada and the U.S. is the most valuable bilateral such relationship in world trade. Canada exports critical amounts of basic commodities to the U.S., including oil and timber (the U.S. buys more of both from Canada than from any other country), plus minerals, livestock and auto parts. The U.S. exports finished and value-added products to Canada. "There’s no question, our sales to the U.S. drive the Canadian economy," Jim Laws, executive director of the Canadian Meat Council, told MEATPOULTRY.com.

That’s why Canadian officials, including meat executives, are becoming increasingly concerned by economic and political developments that might erect obstacles in the path of what has been a somewhat free-flowing trade between the two countries. The "buy American" provisions of the economic stimulus package have been roundly criticized in Ottawa and other foreign capitals as short-sighted. More specific to meat, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack’s inscrutable hesitation over implementation of mandatory country-of-origin labeling rules has industry executives in Canada worried that COOL could become even more onerous to Canadian livestock exporters than presently written.

"COOL is the one thing we’re watching very closely. The president and prime minister will have to make a value judgment regarding where COOL stands relative to other issues such as oil and security, but COOL is pretty important to us," commented John Masswhol, director of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association. "This rule has been seven years in the making and has been examined every which way to Sunday, but it’s still not definitive." He said that Canadians were able to have a herd-segregation provisions removed from a new draft of the final COOL rule – "we’re pleased about that, and its removal is consistent with the stated desire of the G-7 countries to end protectionist measures" – but this week’s cancellation of a press conference that was to focus on COOL by Secretary Vilsack is causing worry.

Vilsack said he would issue a letter this week detailing his COOL plan, and he met with officials from the American Meat Institute to discuss those details. However, the secretary has not met with any Canadian delegations, Masswhol told MEATPOULTRY.com, and no one he knows has seen a letter from Vilsack. "We’re just foreigners up here, just foreign suppliers," he said with disappointment. But, he added, "Vilsack isn’t working with a full staff right now. There are lots of assistant secretaries and deputy secretaries who haven’t been appointed yet, so Vilsack isn’t getting the amount of advice and counsel he’d normally receive on an issue like this one."

CMC’s Jim Laws said that despite tensions over certain trade issues – besides livestock, oil mined from Alberta’s tar sands has been at the center of heated debate on both sides of the border – Canadians are optimistic that things will improve. "Most Canadians – the last statistic I saw was something like 85 percent – were thrilled that Obama was elected," he told MEATPOULTRY.com. "For our meat processors, it’s a little different than for the cattle and hog producers, who have genuine worries about what country-of-origin labeling might do." Laws recently took a trip south of the border into upsate New York to visit supermarket meat departments and see if COOL was having an effect already, even though it is not scheduled to become mandatory until the end of March. He found signs in some stores detailing which countries, which kinds of meat had come from. For Canadian livestock producers, who traditionally have had good business shipping cattle and hogs south for slaughter and processing, such signage tends to discriminate in favor of U.S. products.

"It’s kind of crazy to tamper with what has been a great trade relationship," Masswhol told MEATPOULTRY.com. "Think about it: 32 million Canadians buy more U.S. products than 300 million Europeans do. Why would you want to put that kind of relationship at risk?" He said CCA seeks, either from this week’s Obama-Harper meeting or from Vilsack’s office, "some sort of assurance that our valuable trade in livestock is not going to be disrupted."