WASHINGTON, June 24, 2015 – Country-of-origin labeling for beef and pork would be converted to a voluntary program, under a draft bill proposed as an alternative to outright repeal.

The legislation proposed by Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., would continue to require COOL for lamb, which was not part of a case that Canada and Mexico brought to the World Trade Organization (WTO) against the labeling requirement.

“This approach is a pathway to finding a solution on country of origin labeling,” said Stabenow, the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee, which will hold a hearing on the issue Thursday.

“COOL serves an important role for consumers and industry. However, the WTO has been clear that we must find a solution that is consistent with our international trade obligations. This proposal offers a viable alternative and I look forward to discussing it at our hearing and with my colleagues in the Senate as we work to come to agreement on a bipartisan solution.

Canada has rejected the approach proposed by Stabenow as inadequate, saying in a letter to the committee dated Tuesday that the COOL law must be repealed.

“Other 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,” the letter said.

The WTO in May upheld its previous ruling that requiring born, raised, and slaughtered information on meat labels and requiring segregation of live cattle from Canada and Mexico accorded unfavorable treatment to the countries' respective livestock. The ruling was the fourth such decision against the U.S., clearing the way for tariffs from Canada and Mexico.

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Canada is now seeking WTO approval to impose $2.6 billion in retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products as a result of the case.

The House voted 300-131 earlier this month to approve a bill (HR 2393) to repeal the COOL law. Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, who has been trying to forge a consensus on the issue in his committee, called Stabenow’s proposal a “positive step forward.”

The United States’ day in court is over. Canada and Mexico have won in the WTO and only they can turn off retaliation. Any action we take in Congress must meet their approval.”

House Agriculture Mike Conaway, R-Texas, immediately rejected Stabenow's proposal Wednesday.

He said he would continue to insist on full repeal of the law. A voluntary labeling program is OK but only as long as it is run by the industry and not subject to requirements of the law, he told Agri-Pulse Wednesday.

“If there’s teeth in it, if there’s requirements in it … we’re not going to do that. A voluntary program that’s strictly run by the industries, that’s fine with me,” he said. 

The North American Meat Institute continues to back his strategy. “The real opinions that count about this bill are those of the Canadian and Mexican governments,” said the meat industry group’s president and CEO, Barry Carpenter. “Change that doesn’t satisfy our trading partners or the WTO still results in billions in tariffs.”