Labelling law rears its head again, but officials don’t expect its return

Some American ranchers are ‘making a lot of noise’ but odds of a return to COOL seem slim

“That’s one of the challenges — on the surface, it seems like a great idea until you fully understand what it means to implement mandatory COOL.” – Fawn Jackson.

Glacier FarmMedia – Mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) is gone, but there’s a new effort by American beef producers wanting to bring it back.

“It’s still hugely on our radar,” said Alberta Beef Producers chair Melanie Wowk. “When COOL was first instituted in 2003, it was costing us about $600 million a year, so I think you could say it strikes fear into the producers... ”

But six years ago, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled it was discriminatory and said Canada could impose retaliatory tariffs of $1.1 billion if the U.S. continued to demand mandatory country-of-origin labelling for beef and pork. Washington then repealed its labelling law, a move hailed by larger U.S. cattle organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which said it hurt ranchers on both sides of the border.

But the fight rages on, with groups like R-CALF USA trying to bring back COOL, an effort that got some mild encouragement from Tom Vilsack when he was confirmed as U.S. agriculture secretary.

“I am absolutely willing to listen to anybody and everybody who’s got an idea about how we can circumvent or get to a point where the WTO doesn’t necessarily slap it down, creating retaliatory impacts on American agriculture,” said Vilsack, who held the same post in former president Barack Obama’s administration.

But while Canadian beef industry officials are keeping a close eye on these rumblings from south of the border, so far, they don’t see anything to worry about.

“It’s something that we work on in partnership with our counterparts in the U.S., and the conversations down there have been reflective of the fact that if country-of-origin labelling were to come back, it would have to be WTO compliant,” said Fawn Jackson, director of policy and international affairs for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

Despite that, the conversation around mandatory COOL seems to re-emerge every few years. That is, in part, because country-of-origin labelling doesn’t seem so bad until you dig a little deeper.

“We’re still working to introduce legislation in Congress to require labels on beef, pork, and dairy products... we believe we’re nearing the top of the hill,” R-CALF USA says on its website. photo: R-CALF

“Consumers want to know more about their food, and perhaps this is a way to do that,” said Jackson. “But when you really dig into the complexities of COOL, you really understand that the implications that mandatory labelling would have would be significantly negative for North American farmers and ranchers.”

That’s because it requires American and Canadian cattle be segregated at processing plants with lots of followup paperwork. (The American Meat Institute pegged that cost at $2.5 billion annually.) When COOL was in force, processors opted to buy American cattle instead, making it harder for some small U.S. packers to source cattle and pushing down prices here.

“Half of our cattle goes south, and when that happened, it really reduced the amount of packer capacity for Canadian cattle,” said Wowk, who farms near Beauvallon.

“Prior to 2003, there were 16 processors in the U.S. that were accepting Canadian cattle five to six days a week. When COOL came in, that dropped down to just six processors, and five of them would only take Canadian cattle once a week.

“So our numbers dropped significantly, which meant our exports dropped, and it ended up costing us a lot of money.”

If the fight were to resume, it would be waged by the cattlemen’s association but funded by provincial checkoffs.

“It cost us close to $4 million in legal fees for this COOL fight that we won in 2015,” said Wowk.

But Jackson doesn’t anticipate a repeat.

“I think it’s well understood that Canada won the WTO case and that we’ve retained our retaliation rights, so I’m hopeful that we won’t have to walk down that road again,” she said. “But the impact was significant when it was in place, so we’ll continue to monitor it and have discussions to avoid that.”

That said, building more awareness of the benefits of international trade is needed, especially in a post-pandemic, shop-local world.

“We need to make sure that it’s not something only Canadians are aware of, but everyone around the globe, particularly post-COVID-19,” Jackson said. “There was this interest in looking at local food systems, but we really have to remember that there’s benefits to having a mix of local and international trade.”

But as a cattle producer, Wowk isn’t as convinced that mandatory country-of-origin labelling will stay on the shelf where it belongs.

“Never say never,” she said. “The U.S. is a big, powerful country with a lot of money and a lot of backing. We’re a smaller country. We don’t have the power that they do. We depend on them a lot for trade.

“COOL is making a lot of noise in the U.S. right now. If somehow, some way, they are able to get around the WTO ruling, it’s going to hit us hard again.”

Jennifer Blair is a reporter with the Alberta Farmer Express. Her article appeared in the June 28, 2021 issue.

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