Even if Canada wins its battle against country-of-origin labelling at the World Trade Organization (WTO) this summer, Canadian livestock producers could still lose the war.
Congressman Collin Peterson, the ranking member of the U.S. house committee on agriculture, told reporters here last week there are groups in the U.S. that support COOL regulations and want to see them maintained.
“If it gets struck down completely, the people that want ‘born, raised and slaughtered’ will try to put a bill in to put it back into effect. I mean, they’re not going to give up,” said Peterson, whose Minnesota district begins at the Canadian border and stretches almost as far south as the Iowa state line.
American organizations such as the U.S. Cattleman’s Association, National Farmers Union, American Sheep Industry Association and the Consumer Federation of America have joined forces to create a COOL defence fund. Many rural and faith-based organizations also actively support country-of-origin labelling.
Peterson said there are also those who would like to see a legislative resolution to the issues surrounding COOL, rather than one dictated by the courts or through the WTO — although he is unsure what shape that might take.
“I don’t know what compromise there could be that would settle this or satisfy people, of what could actually pass. I don’t know how anything could pass in a stand-alone bill,” Peterson said, noting it took two years to pass the Agricultural Act of 2014, better known as the U.S. Farm Bill. Proposed amendments to that bill attempted to alter COOL regulations, but were not passed.
From the Canadian Cattlemen website: The COOL nightmare
“I think at this point we wait to see what the WTO does, and then there will probably be an attempt to have some kind of a legislative response,” he said.
U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack had little to say to questions about COOL during a meeting of agricultural journalists in the American capital last week.
“You know our view is Congress has directed us to put a labelling requirement together, which we did. The WTO has instructed us to be more specific about the labels that we provide, which we have,” he said.
Back at home, some are taking solace in the news that a U.S. Appeals Court “vacated” a previous ruling in early April, again opening the door for an injunction against COOL filed by a coalition of Canadian livestock organizations, including the Canadian Pork Council.
“I believe this is a new opportunity, at the end of the day it’s always nice to see that maybe common sense does prevail… it gives us a lot of hope and optimism,” said Rick Bergmann, a vice-chairman on the council.
Not everyone is optimistic.
Bill Tentinger of the Iowa Pork Producers doesn’t believe the court will find in the Canadians’ favour, however much he wishes it would.
“I’m extremely concerned about it, because of the retaliation issue and I guess as a producer from Iowa, I’m also extremely concerned about Mexico’s retaliation, because we send it a lot of what it calls pork leg,” he said.
But even if the Appeal Court ruling isn’t in Canada’s favour, stakeholders in Manitoba are generally confident that the World Trade Organization will rule against COOL regulations this summer.
“You know, confident and cocky both start with the same letter, so we want to be really careful, but again we’re very hopeful and I would say moderately confident,” Bergmann said.
But politics south of the border mean that a positive ruling for Canada at the WTO won’t necessarily resolve the issue, according to Tentinger.
“In a textbook that sounds great. In my mind, knowing how slow Washington, D.C. works, how long do we have to put up with this? And are they going to be able to move fast enough? Look how long it took them to pass a Farm Bill,” he said.
Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz has promised that Canada will take retaliatory action against the United States if it doesn’t comply with a World Trade Organization ruling.
“Our government remains steadfast in taking whatever steps may be necessary, including retaliation, to achieve a fair resolution,” he said in an emailed statement.
Exactly what retaliation will entail is up for debate, with some speculating that products such as imported maple syrup will be front and centre. Others claim that some businesses have already been informed that products they export will be impacted, but no official confirmation has been received.
“We’re all being used as pawns in this, and it’s just a game for a lot of these folks and individuals in power,” Tentinger said.
All players are still touting negotiation as the preferred route to settling the trade dispute, but few are talking directly.
“We prefer not to go through that (WTO) route, because at the end of that route — should Canada and Mexico win, and we’re quite confident that we will win — that means we can retaliate,” said Jamshed Merchant, Canada’s consulate general in Minneapolis.
“We don’t want to do that because it’s in nobody’s interest to retaliate, so we would really like to work together.”
But for many Canadian hog producers, the damage may already be done, Bergmann said.
“The last five years have been very, very difficult and one of the reasons has been COOL,” he said. “I could show you an awful lot of empty facilities… because of the COOL effect on farms.”
Estimates put the cost of COOL to Canadian farmers at $500 million annually, although in the U.S. that number has been disputed. In any event, the situation isn’t likely to be resolved quickly.
“I don’t know that either side is going to give up,” said Peterson.