Ritz fights COOL in Washington

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz and representatives of the pork and beef sector were in Washington April 8 trying once more to convince the Obama administration to comply with a trade ruling against a protectionist U.S. labelling rule.

The World Trade Organization gave the U.S. until May 23 to end its discrimination against Canadian and Mexican livestock and meat or face retaliatory actions by its neighbours. The measure has cost Canadian beef and pork producers more than $5 billion in lost sales and lower prices since it was enacted in 2008.

The U.S. Agriculture Department has proposed a reworking of its country-of-origin labelling (COOL) scheme that neither Canada nor Mexico find acceptable. Neither do mainstream U.S. farm or food industry groups.

However, a hodgepodge coalition of American agriculture, consumer and religious organizations has endorsed the proposal to make COOL more stringent in response to the WTO ruling.

“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. The best-known member to Canadian farmers is R-Calf, a vociferous outfit that essentially wants to bar all imports.

The coalition says COOL allows “farmers and ranchers to take pride in their products and allow the American public to know the origins of their food and make more informed food-purchasing decisions.”

John Masswohl, vice-president of the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, says the coalition’s position “confirms our expectation that the protectionist groups who want to maintain the discrimination on imported livestock are not going to give up easily and it confirms our expectation that to overcome this opposition, Canada will have to prepare a solid retaliation strategy that includes tariffs on U.S. exports to Canada produced by groups like this or in areas represented by them.

“The USDA proposal is absurd in its claim to bring the U.S. into compliance with WTO obligations by making the labelling requirements even more onerous,” he added. “It will increase the discrimination that the WTO found was the root of the U.S. WTO violation.”

The U.S. proposal would move beyond saying whether meat was the product of Canada or the United States to where it was raised and slaughtered. That would do nothing to reduce the discrimination against imports and would saddle farmers and processors with ever-more administrative costs, which would further increase the price discounts on imported meat and animals.

Comments on the proposed rule are due by April 11, and the deadline to comply with the WTO case is May 23. In theory, if the U.S. isn’t in compliance by that date, Canada and Mexico can impose retaliatory tariffs on any American imports.

Ritz says Canada is looking at products other than meat shipments because most U.S. farmers and processors have opposed COOL.

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