WASHINGTON, May 6, 2015 – A ruling on the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule for meat is expected from the World Trade Organization (WTO) by May 18, and four of agriculture’s top lawmakers on Capitol Hill have different ideas on what could come next.
The U.S. is appealing a WTO decision that found the rule requiring muscle cuts of meat to be labeled with where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered accorded unfair treatment to Canadian and Mexican livestock in U.S. markets. If data from the Canadian government is to be believed, potential retaliatory tariffs could be in the billions.
In Congressionally mandated correspondence to some of agriculture’s leading lawmakers, the Department of Agriculture said that while there is consumer interest in COOL, it has provided little economic benefit. A potential option to COOL that has been considered by USDA and others is a generic mandatory label indicating if the meat is a product of North America, but after receiving the economic analysis from USDA, House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, said a generic label “does nothing to help producers, provides no useful information to consumers, and worse, it does nothing to mitigate the threat of retaliation since the idea has already been rejected by our trading partners.”
It is widely expected that the WTO will decide against the U.S. in the upcoming ruling, which would begin the process of Canadian and Mexican retaliation. Tariffs would still be months away as the WTO would have to decide on the dollar amount of levies appropriate for each country. Before that happens, parties critical of COOL hope Congress will act to prevent retaliation.
If the WTO rules COOL non-compliant with global commerce regulations, the path forward is uncertain. Leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture committees recently spoke with National Association of Farm Broadcasting (NAFB) members, and there doesn’t appear to be a consistent position among the chairmen and ranking members in the two chambers. Conaway has been a persistent advocate for COOL repeal and said he was confident repeal could get through his committee and move to the House floor.
“If the ruling says it’s fine, obviously we’re fine,” Conaway said. “But if it runs against the program, we’ll bring a repeal bill forward pretty quickly. I don’t intend to wait on the retaliatory measure development that could go forward.”
Collin Peterson, D-Minn., the House Agriculture Committee’s ranking member, said based on conversations he’s had with Conaway, his potential repeal bill would address issues only with cattle, hogs and chickens and leave out the other items covered under the current COOL statute. Peterson added that he prefers a legislative fix and would oppose full repeal.
“I think he could probably pass (repeal) in the House. I don’t know, but I assume he can. I’m not sure about the Senate,” Peterson said. “I think it would be wiser to try to figure out some kind of a compromise that we could live with and the Canadians and Mexicans could live with.”
Peterson added that he thought the issues with the provision actually got worse during the trade dispute process and that by filing their complaint with the World Trade Organization, Canada and Mexico “actually ended up worse off then what they were before.”
Agriculture leaders in the Senate share many of Peterson’s views and are unsure if repeal could get through their chamber. Senate Agriculture chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., told NAFB members he isn’t sure if a whip count has ever been conducted on COOL repeal in the Senate.
“I’m not sure that’s the best avenue to take. You never want to do that until you’re darn sure that you have the votes,” Roberts said of repeal, adding that he’d be “hesitant to say that’s the answer.” He said a better approach may be to attack the implementation of the provision through an appropriations measure, and in an email to Agri-Pulse, a spokeswoman for the Senate Agriculture Committee said Roberts “would consider any option, including repeal, that would allow the U.S. to be WTO-compliant and avoid retaliation from Canada and Mexico."
Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., the Senate committee’s ranking member, said like many others in Congress, she wanted to see the WTO decision before considering legislative adjustments to bring the law into compliance.
“COOL enjoys bipartisan support in Congress,” Stabenow noted in a statement to Agri-Pulse. “If we need to make adjustments, we should work in bipartisan way to find a solution that encourages international trade while preserving the right of consumers to know where their food comes from.”
One of the most vocal opponents of COOL has been the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which represents most of America’s beef packers and producers. Collin Woodall, NCBA’s vice president of government affairs, said his organization has been “very pleased at the amount of support that we do have for our position.”
“Even those who were once very adamant supporters of COOL have backed off to some extent,” Woodall said in an interview with Agri-Pulse. “So we do think that finally Congress is ready to take action to prevent retaliation.”
Woodall said he and his team are currently spending time educating new members of Congress and their staffs on COOL and NCBA’s position on it. When asked about a potential timeline for getting something through Congress should the WTO rule against the U.S., he said something could be expected sometime around mid-summer.
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