COOL opponents say U.S. appeal would 'delay the inevitable'

By Spencer Chase

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WASHINGTON, Nov. 6, 2014 - A lawyer specializing in international trade law says any further U.S. action seeking to bring country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules for meat into compliance with the World Trade Organization (WTO) would simply postpone an already likely outcome.

Speaking as part of a panel on COOL at the Heritage Foundation on Wednesday in Washington, Edward Farrell with OFW Law said an appeal by the U.S. of a recent WTO ruling against the U.S. would prolong a process he thinks has already played out. A WTO compliance panel said the rules requiring meat to be labeled with where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered amounted to protectionism.

“The likelihood of a path forward for the U.S. on appeal is remote,” said Farrell, who also serves as counsel for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association (CCA). “I think it would behoove everybody to save the expense of sending people to Geneva and briefing this thing and just continuing the fight just to delay the inevitable outcome. Let's deal with the inevitable outcome now.”

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Supporters of COOL say calls for repeal or other action on the legislation are premature and that the U.S. should allow for all possibilities in the WTO process. In an Oct. 31 release, National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson said “there is simply no rush to take rash action,” and called on Congress to ignore calls for a repeal.

NFU also views the COOL Reform Coalition, a grouping of numerous agriculture and food organizations and companies, as “a Trojan horse with the mission of torpedoing” COOL rather than reforming the legislation as its name suggests.

Speaking on the Heritage Foundation panel, John Murphy, senior vice president of international policy with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, a vocal member of the COOL Reform Coalition, said action should be taken quickly to avoid broad retaliatory measures.

“Supporters of COOL are saying that there's no rush, but they're wrong; there's little time to avoid retaliation,” Murphy said. “A final adjudication by the WTO of U.S. non-compliance with its international trade obligations could come as early as next spring.” Murphy added that Canada and Mexico, which brought the complaint to the WTO, could start imposing retaliatory tariffs “as soon as 60 days” after a ruling on any U.S. appeal.

The speakers at the Heritage Foundation, who also included Mark Dopp, American Meat Institute's general counsel and senior vice president for regulatory affairs, all said legislative action was needed for a full repeal of the law.

Farrell said CCA members are proud of their beef, much as American producers are proud of theirs, but the law's provisions dealing with co-mingling - joint raising or processing livestock from different countries - and production-step labeling ultimately “force costs back up the chain to Canadian producers.”

“(CCA) is not anti-country-of-origin labeling. We've got no problem labeling Canadian beef that comes in from Canada to the U.S. as product of Canada, in fact my guys are very proud of it,” Farrell said. “There's absolutely no fundamental issue with the notion of (COOL) -- the fundamental issue is with how this particular statutory, regulatory scheme operates in the market.”

Proponents of COOL say it is a consumer's right to know where their meat comes from. Dopp said the consumer certainly has a right to ask, which might lead some retailers to maintain their own labeling even if COOL were to be repealed.

“I think if this went away, I wouldn't be surprised some companies decide that they're still going to ask and provide that information because their customers, their consumers may very well want it at this point,” Dopp said. “But there are others I'm quite confident - because I've talked to some of them - who will probably walk away from that . . . Nobody likes to put ‘slaughtered' or ‘harvested' on their label.”

Farrell and Dopp both spoke to the perceived advantages that were supposed to go to U.S. producers under COOL that they say just haven't happened. Dopp said in some cases, producers were told to expect 25 percent more for their product because the meat could demand a premium, but Farrell said that hasn't been the case.

“(U.S. producers) may well have thought it would help them, but there's absolutely no evidence in the marketplace that it has,” Farrell said. “Basically, all it has done is cost Canadian producers (with) no competitive real benefit to the U.S. producers.”

Murphy said he thinks those seeking COOL repeal “have a good and growing base of support” on Capitol Hill, and will seek action as soon as possible.

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