OMAHA (DTN) -- In a strong bipartisan vote, the House of Representatives voted Wednesday evening to repeal mandatory country-of-origin labels for meat.
The final vote was 300 to 131 with 66 Democrats joining 234 Republicans to vote for the measure in a late evening vote.
While the bill now goes to the Senate, the House vote represents a victory for Canadian and Mexican livestock producers. They argued consistently that labels declaring where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered caused U.S. packers and feeders to offer less for their livestock because of costly segregation measures. Some U.S. packers that largely opposed COOL also stopped taking cattle or hogs born outside the U.S.
Canadian and Mexican officials last week announced they were calling on the World Trade Organization to approve a combined $3 billion in retaliatory tariffs -- $2.44 billion from Canada and $623 million from Mexico.
The fear of tariffs rallied a mix of commodity groups and other exporting industries to push for COOL repeal. They are countered by a comparable coalition of small-farm and rural groups that argue COOL helps promote meat from domestic producers.
Just after the vote, National Cattlemen's Beef Association President Philip Ellis, a cattleman from Chugwater, Wyoming, said the strong vote by the House signals that COOL is a failed program.
"COOL has been without benefit to the U.S. cattle industry and producers like myself," Ellis said. "And now with retaliation imminent from our largest trading partners, it is time this legislation is repealed. There is no other fix that can be put in place to bring value to this program or satisfy our trading partners."
Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, called the vote a "disappointing, knee-jerk overreaction" and urged the U.S. Senate to take its time examining the WTO decision and possible retaliation. Johnson criticized House leaders for blocking amendments to the bill.
"Unfortunately, today's action by the U.S. House of Representatives does not work towards a resolution that maintains the integrity of COOL and satisfies WTO obligations. It instead signals an acceptance of defeat when there are still viable alternatives," Johnson said.
House Ag Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, pointed out that he had spoken out against COOL a decade ago on the House floor. As he believed, country-of-origin labels have proven to be a failure, he said. "It turns out my doubts were well-founded. The program has not worked and it's time to put this failed experiment behind us," Conaway said.
In a statement after the bill passed, Conaway added that COOL only provided high costs and the risk of now potentially billions of dollars in retaliation while offering no economic benefit to producers.
"Two of our top trading partners announced earlier this month their intention to seek more than $3 billion in retaliatory sanctions against U.S. exports. This would extend far beyond the agriculture industry and would hurt nearly every sector of the U.S. economy. H.R. 2393 will prevent retaliation and bring the U.S. back into compliance, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to act quickly on this urgent matter," Conaway said.
Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, declared his praise for the House vote and said he plans to seek a similar version of the bill in the Senate.
"I am continuing to take suggestions from my colleagues in the Senate for alternatives that meet our trade obligations. However, almost a month has passed since the WTO ruling was announced, and repeal remains the surest way to protect the American economy from retaliatory tariffs," Roberts said. "We can sit here and let this happen. Or we can move. Let's get a move on."
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., ranking member of the House Ag Committee, was chairman when COOL was reworked in the 2008 farm bill. Peterson criticized the bill for jumping past the WTO process. Peterson also directly challenged Canada's claim of $3 billion in economic losses, which Peterson called "ridiculous."
"More than 60 other countries, including Canada, have their own version of COOL. In fact, Canada has a host of protectionist agriculture laws in place that damage the U.S. dairy, poultry and egg sectors," Peterson said.
Peterson added, "The Canadian system puts U.S. products at a disadvantage every day. Yet the Canadians take issue when we try to give consumers additional information on where their meat comes from, claiming it disadvantages Canadian producers.
Canada's COOL program is run through a checkoff program. Still, the Canadian Beef Research Council notes more than 90% of Canadian consumers support 100% Canadian beef.
Rep. Lloyd Doggett, D-Texas, noted early in the debate that the COOL legislation should raise red flags over the Trade Promotion Authority bill that the House is scheduled to take up on Friday. Doggett noted the WTO was essentially pushing the U.S. to change its laws over a label or risk trade retaliation. "This recent World Trade Organization decision against the United States ought to serve as more than a blinking yellow light. It ought to be viewed as a giant red stoplight."
Rep. Jim McGovern, D-Mass., stated COOL was way for consumers to support American farmers. He cited that roughly 90% of people support COOL for food products.
Still, others called COOL a failure of public policy. "It provides little value for the consumer, raises costs for all producers and has created a significant trade dispute with our No. 1 and No. 2 trading partners -- Canada and Mexico," said Rep. Vicky Hartzler, R-Mo., who added that her state could face up to $623 million in economic losses from the trade retaliation.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com
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