Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has one thing to say about country-of-origin labelling (COOL): “It’s not cool.”
In the midst of an appeal to quash COOL in the United States, Ritz has been working to gain supporters in the U.S. in an effort to halt non-science-based trade practices that could have far-reaching implications for Canadian agriculture.
“COOL has the potential to really send shock waves through our industry, right back into the feed grain sector. It certainly creates a tremendous disparity on our livestock sector,” Ritz said during a recent interview at the Red Deer Agri-Trade event.
And the potential economic impact of COOL continues to climb. “We’re seeing that number grow to some 10 cents a pound in cattle, and the pork number is almost doubling,” Ritz said. “It’s to the point where, like a good investment portfolio, you have to have more than one buyer, and that’s what we’re seeking to do with the agreement in the European Union and working in the Pacific Rim to get more access there, so we’re not just dependent on the U.S. market.”
Though the U.S. is Canada’s largest trading partner, Ritz says the relationship has become one sided. “At the same time the Americans talk a good deal on the TPP (Trans-Pacific Partnership) and expanding trade, they do everything within their power to make it on their terms only. That’s not good trade policy.”
Like other non-science-based trade barriers, Minister Ritz sees COOL as “a political solution to a problem that doesn’t exist.” Consumers in the U.S. are well versed in the similarities between our science-based food safety approach and the way we raise our cattle, Ritz said.
“There’s a number of times those animals can and do cross the border back and forth as they’re finished and end up on someone’s dinner table. There isn’t the concern that COOL tends to try to address.”
As Canadian, Mexican, and American meat sectors work on the appeal, Ritz has been meeting with state senators and congressmen to reinforce to those who are sitting on the fence that “it’s not comfortable there.”
In the six months since the injunction to stop the implementation of COOL failed, about 100 American state-level senators have signed on to support the appeal. “There’s been a huge ground shift down there,” Ritz said.
The sudden change in attitudes may be in response to the promise of retaliatory measures against the U.S. if they proceed with implementing COOL. In June, the Government of Canada released a lengthy list of items imported by the U.S. that may be targeted, including fresh meat, processed foods, and other agricultural products.
“Our list is concerning to a lot of state-level senators and congressmen, and that’s intentionally why it’s done,” Ritz said. “It’s to give as comprehensive a list as possible to show them that there will be harm that goes back to the U.S., as well as a higher price to the consumers of pork and beef products in the U.S.”
Non-science-based trade barriers are a growing concern in Canada’s agriculture industry, according to the minister. “They’re far more hurtful than the actual tariff barriers because they’re applied in an indiscriminate way, and there’s no way to adjust the market for them. They sort of catch you out of the blue.”
The Canadian government is looking at other such trade barriers as well, including those related to low-level presences of GM crops and maximum residue limits in grain. “The efficacy of testing now is so much more that zero is no longer zero,” said Minister Ritz, adding that Canada is not immune. “We have zero tolerance, and we’ve begun the consultations on how we move away from that plateau as well.”