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U. S. finalizes meat label rule, WTO dispute looms

The White House is on track to finalize rules that require country-of-origin labels on meat sold in U. S. grocery stores and are challenged by Canada as a violation of world trade rules, officials said Dec. 10.

Labelling became mandatory on Sept. 30 under an interim rule. The Agriculture Department says it will allow a six-month transition for food makers and retailers to comply with the law.

The department sent the proposed final rule to the White House budget office for approval earlier this week.

“The final rule is expected to come out soon,” said a USDA spokesman. He said he could not discuss whether the final rule would make changes in the temporary rules now in place.

Canada says the U. S. labelling rules poses an unfair technical trade barrier that makes U. S. packers less willing to buy Canadian cattle and only at lower prices. On Dec. 1, Canada requested consultations with the United States, the first step in the World Trade Organization dispute process.

Up to 1.5 million head of cattle are shipped to the United States from Canada each year, says a Canadian cattle group, and two-thirds are slaughter cattle.

U. S. consumer and farm groups say the labelling rules will distinguish U. S.-grown food from imports on the grocery shelf and fulfil the shopper’s right to know about products.

Up to now, USDA officials have expressed mixed views on when they would present the final rule. Some wanted to wrap up the regulations by the end of this year. Others said it would be better to gather views at the end of the transition period about useful revisions.

The largest U. S. cattle group favoured prompt issuance of the final rule as a way to end squabbling over the labelling requirement. The law requires food makers, retailers and livestock producers to keep records on the source of their products.

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