WASHINGTON, July 23, 2015 – Senate Agriculture Committee leaders remain at odds over the path forward for the country-of-origin labeling law for meat, and their debate could get tangled up in a highway bill the Senate is considering.  

Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., on Thursday introduced an amendment to the surface transportation bill that would repeal the labeling law for meat.

But the committee’s ranking Democrat, Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, introduced legislation with a bipartisan group of committee members that would preserve a voluntary labeling program with the current definition of a U.S. product. Although Stabenow has seven of the 20 committee members officially on the bill as either sponsors or cosponsors, she told reporters she has the support of the majority of the committee. 

A COOL-repeal bill (HR 2393) similar to Roberts’ amendment passed the House 300-131 in June.

“Whether you support COOL or whether you oppose COOL, the fact is retaliation is coming,” Roberts said on the Senate floor, pointing to the potential for more than $3 billion in retaliatory action from Canada and Mexico.

The announcement of Roberts’ amendment came shortly after some of his committee members, including Stabenow and John Hoeven, R-N.D., held a press conference to announce the introduction of the Voluntary Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) and Trade Enforcement Act of 2015.

The bill, a revised version of a bill Stabenow proposed earlier, is cosponsored by John Thune, R-S.D., Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa, Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., Mike Enzi, R-Wyo., and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio. All but Enzi are members of the Agriculture committee.

The top Democrat on the Senate Finance Committee, Ron Wyden of Oregon, also announced his support for the measure. Finance oversees trade policy.

Hoeven said that the bill could also be added to the highway bill, saying that the group is building support and “trying to get it done this month before the recess.”

The bill would keep in place a requirement that livestock be born, raised and slaughtered in the United States to be a  “product of the U.S.”

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The Canadian government rejected the proposal. Gerry Ritz, Canada’s agriculture minister, and Ed Fast, Canada’s international trade minister, said in a joint statement that “Stabenow’s COOL 2.0” legislation “fails to address Canada’s concerns” by continuing segregation practices necessary to maintain the “product of U.S.” label requirements, even on a voluntary basis.

“Senator Stabenow's measure will harm farmers, ranchers, packers, retailers and consumers on both sides of the border. This is contrary to successive World Trade Organization (WTO) decisions that have clearly ruled in Canada's favour,” the statement said. “The only acceptable outcome remains for the United States to repeal COOL or face ($3 billion) in annual retaliation.” 

U.S. industry reaction was in line with previously stated positions on COOL. The National Pork Producers Council, National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, and North American Meat Institute backed Roberts’ amendment and opposed Stabenow’s bill. NPPC President Ron Prestage said Stabenow’s language would continue a voluntary program that is already at odds with Canada and Mexico.

“While we appreciate Sen. Stabenow’s efforts, we can’t support her bill because it would continue key features of a labeling regime that’s already been found to violate WTO rules,” Prestage said. “More importantly, it doesn’t satisfy Canada and Mexico, so it won’t stop retaliation, and we can’t afford to have our products restricted, through tariffs, to two of our top three markets.

Groups that support COOL were split. The National Farmers Union and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association endorsed Stabenow’s bill, but the producer group R-CALF USA called the bill “deceitful” and “terrible legislation.” The group warned members in an email that “we are being railroaded.” Members were urged to tell the senators supporting the bill to point out that the arbitration process with the World Trade Organization still has more time. 

NFU President Roger Johnson said Stabenow’s bill was “the only politically viable means of preventing Congress from completely stripping away a clear national label.”

“Clearly, the loss of mandatory labeling, especially for food not included in the dispute, was a bitter pill to swallow, but this is truly the only path forward for those of us fighting for consumers who want to know where their food comes from and for America’s family farmers who are proud to provide it,” Johnson said.

House Agriculture Committee chair Mike Conaway – the author of the House repeal bill – said there is “no excuse” for the Senate to break for its August recess “while the threat of economic harm hangs over nearly every industry in the U.S.”


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