WASHINGTON, March 16, 2015 – As the U.S. waits for an appellate ruling on its efforts to defend its country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack seems to be at his wits’ end on how to make the law work.
Speaking today at the National Farmers Union’s annual convention in Wichita, Kansas, Vilsack said USDA has made “several efforts” to bring the current legislation into compliance with World Trade Organization regulations. In October, the WTO ruled that language requiring information on where meat-producing animals were born, raised, and slaughtered to be displayed on meat labels violated international trade obligations, giving Canadian and Mexican animals “less favorable treatment than that accorded to like U.S. livestock.”
Now, Vilsack doesn’t see how the language in the law, officially implemented by USDA in 2009, will be able to coexist with WTO rulings.
“We’ve frankly run out of options. We either have to win the appeal at the WTO or Congress has to do something with the law,” Vilsack told the NFU, an organization that has been vocal in its support for COOL. Currently, the U.S. is appealing a WTO decision saying COOL was “inconsistent with the United States’ WTO obligations.”
Vilsack has previously stated that Congress would likely have to change the law if the WTO doesn’t rule in favor of the U.S. A ruling from the WTO is expected by May 18.
“Every time we try it, WTO comes back and says that it requires segregation of livestock” from different countries, which is unacceptable, Vilsack said. At the same time, “the law says we want you to be able to label things that are strictly USA produced. That requires segregation.”
Vilsack also described potential avenues for a legislative fix, specifically a North American production label and a voluntary program for producers seeking to identify their product as being “totally U.S.” While switching to a mandatory North American label and a voluntary U.S. label would allow for better treatment of Canadian and Mexican producers, Vilsack said he’s heard Canadians “aren’t excited by that idea,” but added that he couldn’t be sure.
Congress has asked Vilsack to report by May on what he thinks is the best path forward for COOL. While interested parties await the WTO appellate ruling, Vilsack said he is running out of ways that he thinks might make COOL work as it is currently written.
“It seems to me there needs to be a way to get out of this box that we’re in while still preserving the ability to market what is produced in this country, even if it’s on a voluntary basis,” Vilsack said. “I can’t figure out how to do it from a regulatory perspective; we’ve tried several different ways.”
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