Trade Minister Stockwell Day and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz made it official May 7. Canada is reviving its WTO challenge of the United States country-of-origin labelling program.
In a visit to Washington in late April, Day told reporters he had informed U. S. officials of Canada’s intention. But the government still wanted to make an announcement in Ottawa. So Day ended up doing a joint conference call with Ritz for reporters from Romania where he’s on an official visit.
Ritz, who was in Ottawa, said the government was satisfied with the U. S. COOL program as it was amended in January because it made changes that didn’t discriminate against Canadian meat or livestock. But then USDA Secretary Thomas Vilsack decided in February to add some voluntary provisions that would restore the kind of labelling requirements Canada opposed. Vilsack threatened to make his provisions mandatory if there isn’t sufficient compliance by the packing industry.
Under the WTO rules, the two sides will have 60 days to try to work out a resolution to their dispute. If that fails, then Canada can ask for a formal WTO dispute resolution panel that would issue a binding decision.
If the dispute goes to a panel, a decision could take years. When asked if Canada would provide special financial help to producers in the meantime, Ritz would only say the government was in discussions with the industry. “We will continue our contact with them.”
Ritz gave the same sort of answer in the Commons the day before when Liberal Ag Critic Wayne Easter asked if the government would help offset the impact of COOL and the bans on Canadian pork because of the H1N1 Influenza A with “cash payments to Canadian hog producers so that they can have some financial security.”
“Pork producers as well as the rest of the farmers across this great country know that we will develop programs and be there for them in their need,” Ritz replied. “We continue to open trade routes for them. We continue to maintain the great trade they have with certain countries.”
For his part, Day said Vilsack’s insistence on “very strict labelling practices have removed the flexibility previously envisioned in the legislation and this affects the ability of our cattle and hog exporters to compete fairly in the U. S. market. Some processors are not buying Canadian livestock or not offering a fair price. We’re working with producers to make sure they’re treated fairly.”
Day said the government would assess its options at the end of the 60-day consultation period. “We want to see if we can make progress. We don’t want to prejudge the outcome.”
Last December, Canada requested WTO consultations with the U. S. on COOL but put that on hold in January when the former Bush administration announced changes to the program that Canada deemed acceptable.
Mexico is filing a similar request at the WTO. This underscores both countries’ concerns over the impact of COOL on the integrated North American industry, the ministers said.
Canada says COOL ignores the continental integration of the meat industry with animals often born in one country and raised in another. All COOL does is impose additional handling and labelling costs on imported meat which discourages Canadian products.