WASHINGTON, June 10, 2015 – The House of Representatives late Wednesday approved a bill that would repeal country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements for beef, pork, and poultry products sold in the U.S., a move made in hopes of avoiding billions in economic retaliation from two major U.S. trading partners.

The bill, H.R. 2393, cleared the chamber in a bipartisan 300-131 vote with 66 Democrats and 234 Republicans voting in favor of the bill. Only 10 Republicans voted in opposition. 

The bill is in response to four rulings from the World Trade Organization (WTO) that a U.S. COOL rule was not compliant with international trade obligations and accorded less favorable treatment to foreign livestock by requiring labels to state where the meat-producing animal was born, raised, and slaughtered. A WTO Dispute Settlement Body is set to hear arguments on potential retaliatory measures next Wednesday and early indications from Canada and Mexico are that they may seek more than $3 billion in tariffs on a wide range of U.S. imports.

During floor debate lawmakers on both sides of the aisle said they wanted to protect the American economy from billions in tariffs. Democrats argued that consumers want to know where their food comes from and there was still time to come up with an amicable solution, short of repeal. Retaliatory tariffs, if authorized, are not expected to be in place until late summer or early fall.

House Agriculture Committee ranking member and Minnesota Democrat Collin Peterson voted against the bill, upholding his previously stated position that full repeal is not the solution to the problem. He said that “nobody on our side wants retaliation,” but also noted that this bill only repeals COOL requirements for certain meat labels but leaves them intact for fruits and vegetables, something he called “ridiculous.”

Speaking on the House floor, Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, who is also the bill’s chief sponsor, said those arguments “fall on deaf ears.”

“This isn’t about people knowing where their food comes from, it’s about retaliation that will be coming from Canada and Mexico,” Conaway said. He added that the four years of WTO deliberation “left ample time” to come to some kind of conclusion that worked for all involved parties. Conaway also addressed the argument that there is still time before the WTO could actually put retaliation in place by noting that several businesses plan their purchases ahead of time, “commerce right now is being affected” and “time is of the essence.”

While this bill repeals mandatory COOL requirements, Conaway did leave the door open for a potential voluntary COOL rule, noting that “nothing that we’re doing today would prevent us from creating some sort of a voluntary program.”

Several lawmakers – mostly Democrats – also tied the debate to upcoming votes on trade legislation by expressing concern that American laws were at risk due to international trade agreements. In a floor speech Wednesday morning, Kentucky Republican Thomas Massie implored members to remember that they “took an oath to the Constitution; we didn’t take an oath to the World Trade Organization.”

Connecticut Democrat Rosa DeLauro advised her colleagues to be leery of the precedent this action could take, especially with the House facing a likely vote on Trade Promotion Authority on Friday.

“The administration tells us that trade agreements do not alter domestic laws. Clearly, this is false,” DeLauro said Wednesday afternoon. “Beware of the road that you go down today. Beware of a trade agreement that puts American sovereignty at risk.”

The measure now goes to the Senate, where the climate is less warm toward clean repeal. Senate Agriculture Committee ranking member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., told reporters Wednesday that she hoped she and committee chair Pat Roberts, R-Kan., “can find a balanced approach that gives consumers information they need but is also WTO compliant. We’ll see how that goes but I would also anticipate a different approach to COOL.”

In a statement released after the House vote, Roberts applauded Conaway’s efforts and said the Senate should “get a move on.”

“I am continuing to take suggestions from my colleagues in the Senate for alternatives that meet our trade obligations,” Roberts said. “However, almost a month has passed since the WTO ruling was announced, and repeal remains the surest way to protect the American economy from retaliatory tariffs.

“We can sit here and let this happen. Or we can move. Let’s get a move on.”


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