Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack met Tuesday with Canadian Ag Minister Gerry Ritz about issues such as the U.S. country-of-origin labeling law, or COOL, as well as issues of moving goods across the border. Initial press reports from Canada reflected that those talks didn't go the way Ritz would have liked.
Canadian press reported the Canadian government now is prepared to impose $984 million a year in punitive tariffs over the COOL issue. Ritz said he was "extremely disappointed" with the U.S. actions on COOL and considered the Obama administration's labeling approach to be "wrong-headed."
The $984 million a year, ($1 billion in Canadian dollars) in damages comes from the Canadian argument that the country's producers have lost that much in value since the COOL rule went into effect in late 2008. No one has yet to challenge those arguments, despite the fact that the year also happens to coincide with the collapse of the global economy, a sharp decline in global trade and a spike in U.S. unemployment to more than 10% that would have also seemed to have had at least an equal effect on Canada's livestock markets compared to a law that tells people where their meat is produced.
Canada has been willing to pay for lawyers at the World Trade Organization to challenge COOL. Funds for marketing Canadian livestock and meat products in the U.S. have yet to materialize.
Canada and Mexico took the U.S. to task over its COOL rule, which led to a ruling from the trade body that the U.S. labels do discriminate against livestock from neighboring countries.
Meeting with members of the North American Agricultural Journalists on Monday, a Canadian reporter asked why the U.S. is unwilling to comply with the spirit of the trade ruling. Vilsack responded that USDA's proposed changes to the COOL rule provide an answer to the problem posed by the WTO ruling without eliminating the labels.
"Well, it's solving the problem the WTO presented to us," Vilsack said. "The WTO said that, 'It's OK for labeled to be affixed and it's OK for consumers to be informed, we just didn't like the way you did it.' And so we're going to try to do it in a way that answers any questions about where something may have been raised, where something may have been processed or slaughtered. In doing so, we're providing consumers information. And we think it's very consistent, not just with the spirit, but also with the legal requirements the WTO panel presented us. That's the reason we did it because we want to have good relations with everyone."
USDA stated the rule would modify labeling provisions for muscle cuts to require more information on where each of the production steps --- born, raised and slaughtered --- occurred. For instance, a steer born in Canada, but raised and slaughtered in the U.S. would be labeled effectively in that manner, "Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the United States."
For all domestic animals, the label would change from "Product of the U.S." to "Born, Raised and Slaughtered in the U.S."
Retailers and meatpackers also would be prevented from co-mingling muscle cuts from different countries in packaging. Currently, a label for multiple cuts of meat may state "Product of the United States, Mexico and Canada." Now, meat from animals from different countries will have to be segregated during processing to provide more accurate information.
The U.S. must have its new COOL rule in place by May 23 to meet the legal responsibilities handed down by the WTO. The comment period for the proposed changes ends Thursday.
National Farmers Union, a major advocate for COOL, issued a news release Tuesday citing a petition with more than 35,600 signatures backing USDA's changes to the COOL proposal. “The outpouring of support for COOL makes it clear that USDA is doing the right thing by proposing strengthened and more informative labels,” said Roger Johnson, president of NFU.
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