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Canada ponders COOL retaliation

With the deadline for changing its discriminatory country-of-origin labelling law barely a month away, Ottawa is drawing up a list of possible retaliatory measures against the U.S. — and it’s getting pretty long, says Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz

“It would take a lot of initiatives to reach the $1 billion a year in damages being done to Canada,” said Ritz. “We will consider all options, including extensive retaliatory measures, should the U.S. not achieve compliance.”

The World Trade Organization has given Washington until May 23 to reform its so-called COOL law, but its proposed changes calling for more detailed labelling would make the law more stringent, critics charge. Changes proposed by the USDA would move beyond saying whether meat was the product of Canada or the U.S. and require labelling to state where animals were raised and slaughtered.

“It doesn’t bring the U.S. into compliance with the WTO ruling,” said Ritz.

While mainstream U.S. farm and food industry groups also want the labelling regime removed, a hodgepodge coalition of agriculture, consumer and religious organizations backs the proposed changes.

“The only acceptable way to respond to the WTO challenge is to make labels more informative for consumers, not water them down,” the coalition says.

Under WTO rules, Canada can impose tariffs on U.S. goods flowing north. But it’s widely expected the U.S. will stave that off by taking its labelling proposal to the WTO. That could set off another year or more of wrangling and additional losses for Canadian beef and pork producers, which are estimated to have surpassed the $5-billion mark since COOL was enacted in 2008.

If retaliatory tariffs are imposed, Canada would look beyond U.S. meat shipments, said Ritz. But it would be better to find a negotiated settlement, he added.

“As each other’s largest trading partners, we need to work together to ensure trade is contributing to the productivity and competitiveness of the sector for the benefit of our farmers,” Ritz said. “The flow of cross-border trade is essential to our economic growth.”

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