Fight over future of meat labeling centers on a few words

By Philip Brasher

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



WASHINGTON, June 25, 2015 - This congressional struggle over the future of country-of-origin labeling of meat hinges on the same issue it always has: What does it mean to be a product of the United States?

The House voted overwhelmingly to repeal the law in the wake of a final ruling by World Trade Organization against the labeling rules, but COOL supporters are pushing the Senate to convert the labeling law to voluntary for beef and pork and to preserve the law's requirement for labeling meat as a U.S.-origin product: The cattle and hogs must have been born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

Leo McDonnell, a North Dakota cattle producers who worked with lawmakers to craft the original COOL law, told the Senate Agriculture Committee on Thursday that the definition is essential to “preserve the integrity” of the U.S.-origin label.

Prior to the law, beef could be labeled as a U.S. product regardless of where it was raised, so so long as it was processed in the United States, said McDonnell, who is executive officer and director emeritus of the U.S.  Cattlemen's Association.  “I don't want to go back to the dark ages,” he said.

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His group is up against a wall of opposition from meatpackers and other beef and pork industry groups as well as interests in other sectors who fear that the WTO will authorize Mexico and Canada to hit them with billions of dollars in retaliatory tariffs until the law is repealed.

The tariffs could double the price of U.S. wine in Canada, devastating a growing market for U.S. wine producers, the president of the New York Wine and Grape Foundation, Jim Trezise, told the senators.  “It would basically unravel the whole wine market system… Our wines would be replaced by wines from other competing regions around the world,” he said.

The committee's chairman, Pat Roberts, made clear he would like to repeal the law but must find a compromise that can get enough Democratic support to get the 60 votes necessary to move a bill on the Senate floor. He said he wants to have a bill marked up after next week's July 4 recess and passed before August.

The committee's ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, released a draft bill Wednesday that would preserve the existing definition of U.S.-origin beef or pork.

“The practicality is in order to move this quickly, as we need to do, we need to come to the middle. It's time to do that,” she told reporters. She did not rule out compromising on the definition. “We're certainly going to discuss everything.”

Roberts, R-Kan., said he was working on alternatives with the committee's Republican members.

As the hearing came to an end, Roberts displayed posters of meat labels that showed the COOL information in type so small that he suggested consumers probably ignore anyway.

Opponents of COOL say the Agriculture Department could craft a new country-of-origin labeling program. “Any bipartisan right-to-know policy would be fantastic but today the No. 1 goal is to prevent retaliation,” said Chris Cuddy, a senior vice president of Archer Daniels Midland Co.

Cuddy, who leads ADM's corn processing business, told the committee his company fears a repeat of duties that hammered sales of U.S. corn sweetener in Mexico from 1997 to 2001. “As unfortunate as that dispute was, the current situation involving COOL will have much more serious economic consequences if Congress doesn't act to prevent retaliation,” Cuddy said.

The COOL law's backers fear the USDA labeling program would not have the same strict definition for U.S. origin. If it's left up to USDA to write the definition, industry opponents of the current rule will “beat us to death to get rid of ‘born, raised and slaughtered',” McDonnell said.

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The governments of Canada and Mexico both sent letters to the committee before the hearing emphatically insisting on repeal of the law. Mexico's letter said, “To be clear, repeal of the COOL measure for meat products is the only option that will resolve this dispute.”

The Canadian letter said that “approaches such as a legislated ‘voluntary' label or a generic label are not satisfactory outcomes for Canada and would force Canada to impose retaliatory tariffs, as early as late summer.”


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