The World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling on May 18 against the U.S. Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) law on poultry, beef, pork and other meat products set off a cascade of events. Canada and Mexico said on June 4 they would ask the WTO for stiff retaliatory fines if the labeling continued. And the U.S. House of Representatives voted on June 10 to repeal certain COOL requirements.
Though the U.S. Senate has yet to consider a bill, Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., a ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, has been a vocal opponent to ending COOL. She is trying to find an approach that is WTO-compliant and gives consumers useful information. So far, the Obama Administration has taken a wait-and-see attitude.
COOL, which was created to let consumers know where their food is produced and slaughtered, has been hailed by proponents as a consumer food safety measure and by opponents as a costly and unnecessary burden.
Canada and Mexico are significant beef importers and exporters with the U.S. The U.S. Meat Export Federation said Canada bought $1 billion worth of U.S. beef in 2012, while Mexico bought $761 million.
In their joint statement, Canada said it will ask for more than $2.4 billion (C$3 billion) in retaliatory measures and Mexico more than $653 million at a special Dispute Settlement Body meeting on June 17.
In a widely expected move, the House subsequently voted 300-131 to repeal COOL for meats and poultry.
Colin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association in Washington, D.C., which represents 174,000 cattle producers, says he wasn’t surprised by either ruling.
“The [Canadian] fine is a significant impact on the economy. The beef trade is worth about $1 billion with Canada,” he says. “So 100 percent [or higher penalties] could shut us down.”
Woodall says COOL compliance has impacted cattle producers differently. “A cattle producer in Texas can lose $35-60 per head due to COOL. In the middle of the country, the cost is lower,” he says.
The Food Safety and Inspection Service has estimated that COOL would result in 121,350 raw meat and poultry unique labels with an average cost of $32.8 million for the label changes.
Woodall says COOL does nothing for food safety because it is run by the federal Agricultural Marketing Service.
But Jaydee Hanson, senior policy analyst at the Center for Food Safety in Washington, D.C., sees harm in the rulings. “Knowing where food came from helps speed the process of tracing the source of a food issue [like E. coli],” he says.
Even though the penalties Canada and Mexico are requesting are big, “the U.S. ought to take the position the European Union took when they didn’t want to accept our hormone-treated beef. They paid the fine,” Hanson says. That trade row has lasted more than 20 years.
David Plunkett, senior staff attorney for Food Safety at the Center for Science in the Public Interest in Washington, D.C., says consumers want the information when making purchasing decisions, but there are bigger issues.
“Underlying the country of origin issue is whether we trust our federal agencies to do a good job with imported food,” Plunkett says. “The public doesn’t perceive them as doing a good job. This is a wakeup call to the agencies.”