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Please, let’s not win again

Traceability is a fact of life for almost every other commodity that consumers buy; yet somehow we have not embraced traceability’s potential in the world of food. I cannot buy an iPhone that does not have complete traceability back to its basic components; yet what we put into our bodies is rarely traceable to source. Why is that?”

That’s a quote (see page 16) from Brian Sterling, president of SCS Consulting which advises food companies.

Anyone care to disagree?

Or how about this, which is a paraphrase from a statement by a U.S. senator a few years ago?

“The law in this country requires that my underwear has a label to say where it comes from. Are you going to tell me that I shouldn’t have the same information about what I put in my mouth?”

Over the past few weeks we’ve been bombarded by indignant Canadian reaction to the new U.S. rules on country-of-origin labelling (COOL) for Canadian meat. Federal and provincial agriculture ministers and commodity organizations have issued statements. National newspapers have run columns from various pundits. Everyone agrees. It’s unfriendly. It’s unfair. It’s unnecessary. It will cost Canadians more. It will cost U.S. consumers more. U.S. meat packers and retailers don’t like it either.

Uh, huh. All true. But so what?

For several years, or at least since that senator’s comparison with underwear labels, it was clear that this thing was a done deal. There is overwhelming support in the U.S. (as in Canada) from consumers who want to know where their food comes from, and knowing where meat comes from would be at the top of everyone’s list. To think Canada could be an exception is simply unrealistic. Yes, we know all about the complications of animals raised in one country and slaughtered in another. Yes, we know there’s a free trade agreement with the U.S. Yes, we know it’s contrary to World Trade Organization (WTO) rules.

Yes, but we should also know that we’re dealing with the U.S. This is the country which refuses to recognize the International Court of Justice, which kidnaps people to be interrogated by the CIA in other countries run by dictators, which uses drones to execute suspected opponents without trial and monitors everyone’s phone and Internet traffic.

In comparison, violating the rules by insisting that a package of bacon say “Canada” on it is presumably not something that President Obama and colleagues are losing much sleep over.

Though it is a violation of the WTO, as we were proudly informed by the usual blizzard of government and industry press releases when Canada won its COOL challenge. Apparently they assumed the U.S. would roll over and comply.

Which it has, apparently with a set of rules that are even more complex than the ones already in place. According to the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, the previous rules cost the Canadian producer approximately $25 to $40 per head. The new ones will increase that to $90 to $100.

In other words, we were better off doing nothing. The headline should read: “WTO challenge more than doubles cost to Canadian producers.”

That doesn’t include the cost of all the legal work and fruitless lobbying by producer organizations.

Meanwhile, the U.S. is eating our lunch in the beef business, or perhaps that should be serving us lunch with beef from our own cattle. According to last year’s Canadian Agri-Food Policy Institute’s report on the Canadian beef industry, in 2002 Canada had a beef trade surplus of $1.4 billion with the U.S. By 2011 it had dropped to $42 million. They’re taking our cattle and shipping us high-end beef cuts that we should be producing ourselves. CAPI says we are at risk of becoming a net importer of beef.

The U.S. is also using some of our beef to expand exports offshore. Since 2005 its exports are up 280 per cent by value. Since 2002 ours are down by 3.5 per cent. How is it that Canada, with a comprehensive cattle identification system, can be so outsnookered by the U.S., which has none?

Even more ironic is that we have a better identification system than the U.S., but Canadian industry representatives have spent all this time and effort on insisting that a label not be placed on Canadian product.

Could it be that all the fuss over COOL is just a smokescreen for failure to address bigger issues in the industry?

The latest WTO “victory” will mean the cost to export to the U.S. will more than double. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Canadian government need to look up the definition of a “Pyrrhic victory” — “one with such a devastating cost that it carries the implication that another such victory will ultimately lead to defeat.”

Please, let’s not try to win another one.

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