Ottawa again turns to the WTO in battle over U.S. labelling law

Canada will go back to the World Trade Organization — rather than impose sanctions — to try and get Washington to change or scrap its country-of-origin labelling law rules that discriminate against Canadian beef and pork.

“There is a WTO process we intend to follow that takes time,” said Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz. “We will comply with the process regardless of how long it takes.”

Ritz has previously suggested Ottawa was ready to slap retaliatory tariffs on American products coming into Canada, and he didn’t rule out doing that in future.

“We’re not backing down, this is not a game of chicken,” Ritz said from Kazakhstan, where he is on a trade mission.

“We will do everything in our power to make the U.S. understand that its policy violates trade rules. Canada will consider all options at its disposal, including, if necessary, the use of retaliatory measures.”

The WTO ruled last year that the country-of-origin labelling (or COOL) law is discriminatory and ordered the U.S. to change it, but those changes have actually made the rules more onerous, say industry officials.

The USDA will now require meat labels’ origin designations to include even more specific information about each stage of the production process and won’t allow commingling of muscle cuts.

“USDA’s statement that their amendment complies with the WTO is absurd,” said Martin Unrau, president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

“It will require additional segregation by eliminating the ability to commingle cattle of different origins.”

While supporting the government’s move to go back to the WTO, Unrau said Ottawa should state what retaliatory measures it’s prepared to take, so American politicians will know the consequences “should they continue to ignore their international obligations and flaunt the WTO’s ruling.”

Since COOL was implemented in 2008, the law has cost Canadian beef and pork producers more than $5 billion in lost sales and lower prices.

“This is simply unacceptable and it must stop now,” said Trevor Atchison, president of Manitoba Beef Producers.

“Our governments and our industry have invested substantial resources in trying to resolve this matter without retaliation, to no avail. But Canada must protect itself if the U.S. refuses to comply with international trade law.”

That view was echoed by Jean-Guy Vincent, chairman of the Canadian Pork Council.

“The U.S. is gaming the system at our expense,” said Vincent. “Their behaviour and the bad faith reflected by the new COOL rule is appalling.”

He, too, called for Ottawa to spell out what retaliation it is prepared to take.

Ritz has said Canada is looking at imposing retaliatory tariffs on products other than meat shipments because most U.S. farmers and processors also oppose COOL.

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