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U. S. Processors Defiant On COOL

“It depends on how the political winds blow in terms of how strong he’ll try to push it.”

– JURGEN PREUGSCHAS, CPC

U. S. food companies are refusing to follow a federal government request to increase country-of-origin labelling (COOL) measures on meat, in a possible showdown with the Obama administration.

A recent Canadian delegation to Washington heard that U. S. packers and processors are rejecting U. S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack’s suggestion to voluntarily go above and beyond the law on COOL.

In a January letter, Vilsack asked the industry to extend labelling requirements to include processed meat products – something COOL does not actually require. The secretary said he would monitor the results and hinted broadly he might force the industry to comply.

American meat industry officials wrote back to say they would let individual companies make their own decisions but the industry intended to stick by the law.

“What they were saying was that they certainly had no intention of complying with that letter,” said John Masswohl, international relations director for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.

This means the uncertainty about how COOL will be applied and its effect on Canadian livestock exports will continue, Masswohl said.

Masswohl and other CCA officials joined Canadian Pork Council representatives on a May 13-14 mission to Washington to lobby against COOL. They were joined by Mexican livestock and meat industry officials. The groups met with the U. S. meat industry, federal government officials and politicians.

Canada and Mexico have asked for consultations with the U. S. as a first step toward a World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge against COOL.

Jurgen Preugschas, Canadian Pork Council president, said his sense is that Vilsack will not back down on his threat.

“It depends on how the political winds blow in terms of how strong he’ll try to push it,” said Preugschas, a hog producer from Mayerthorpe, Alta.

“I think he’d like to see that, it’s fairly clear he’s going to monitor the situation and if he feels it’s politically expedient, then he would enforce that.”

Ultimately, though, COOL’s fate depends on interests in the U. S., not Canada, Preugschas acknowledged.

“The big take-home that we got from it is that, except for the Texans, there hasn’t been a hue and cry about this. They need complaints from their constituents to get any change.

“The ultimate key is that if Americans don’t complain about it, there’s a huge risk that (Vilsack) will expand (COOL).”

Masswohl said it was hard to get a reading on the situation because U. S. government officials were tight lipped, saying they couldn’t comment because COOL appears headed to the WTO.

COOL is having a major impact on Canadian cattle and hog exports to the U. S., even though the final rule published in January is somewhat more flexible than the interim version.

U. S. packing plants are either refusing Canadian animals or else taking them only on certain days with price discounts.

Feeder cattle exports to the U. S. for the week of May 2 were half of what they were a year earlier, according to USDA figures.

Exports of slaughter steers and heifers were half the number of head shipped in early February 2008.

Year-to-date exports of live swine to the U. S. are down over 40 per cent, said Preugschas.

Masswohl said more Canadian cattle are going into U. S. plants now than under the interim final rule. But they are still limited to certain days and subject to price discounts. [email protected]

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