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Ritz Rattles Sabres Over WTO Challenge To COOL

“The WTO challenge is idling at the curb, waiting to go.”

– GERRY RITZ

U. S. country-of-origin food labelling will finally come into effect next week amid sabre-rattling from Ottawa about possibly reviving a World Trade Organization challenge to the controversial rule.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz last week made it sound as if a WTO challenge was all but imminent.

“The WTO challenge is idling at the curb, waiting to go,” Ritz told a news conference in Winnipeg. “We’re ready to go. We’ll move forward when the time is right.”

A flurry of high-level behind-the-scenes activity is going on as the implementation date for the final COOL rule approaches, according to observers.

“I get the sense that there’s a lot of activity – the minister is pursuing things, other members of Parliament are pursuing things,” said John Masswohl, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association international relations director. “In the wake of (U. S. President Barak) Obama being up here, there’s a lot of followup. A lot of cabinet ministers, MPs and officials are down in Washington.”

At the same time, the fed-era l government appears to be trying diplomacy with Washington before reinstating a WTO challenge to COOL, said Masswohl.

“The way I understand it, they’re trying pretty much everything they can to make sure they’ve exhausted every possible opportunity for discussion or exploration before going back to the WTO,” he said.

“They’re telling us they’re ready to do it. (But) if they think there’s something that could head it off, they will try it, whatever that something might be.”

The final rule, which takes effect March 16, appears to give U. S. meat processors some flexibility in commingling imported live cattle and hogs with domestic livestock.

U. S. agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack created a stir several weeks ago when he sent processors a letter asking them to go above and beyond the letter of the rule in labelling food packages. Vilsack hinted he might force processors to label products more stringently if they didn’t do so voluntarily.

Vilsack’s letter sent a brief chill through the industry, slowing Canadian cattle imports.

But Masswohl said U. S. processors seem to be going ahead with the rule as published and not following Vilsack’s request.

This creates speculation about whether Vilsack will go through with his threats or if he is stepping back from the edge.

“The letter that he sent out is creating more anxiety than I think even he thought it might,” Ritz said during his March 5 news conference.

Ritz said he has been in “constant discussions” with Vilsack about the secretary’s intentions. As of last week, both sides were apparently trying to arrange a face-to-face meeting.

“I think before you launch a (WTO) case, you probably want to look the other guy in the eye. Maybe that’s what’s going on,” Masswohl said. [email protected]

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