SAN FRANCISCO — A Canadian trade official based in California says she’s encouraged by efforts in Congress to repeal a 2008 meat-labeling rule that’s been the object of a six-year dispute between the U.S. and its two biggest trade partners.
Cassie Doyle, the Canadian consul general in San Francisco, said she understands retaliatory tariffs imposed by Canada and Mexico could be devastating for major Western commodities such as California’s $24 billion wine industry.
“Our role has been raising awareness on the lack of fairness in” mandatory country-of-origin labeling, Doyle told the Capital Press. “We’ve been trying to get a fix for COOL. I’ve been reaching out to members of Congress from California and some of the legislators in Sacramento because retaliation will have a disproportionate impact on California being that they’re such big … exporters of agricultural goods into Canada.
“The bottom line is Canada does not want to retaliate, but we need to fix this discriminatory labeling scheme,” she said. “It’s had a real, real impact on our industries in Canada and has been very harmful to U.S. industry as well.”
The Republican-led U.S. House of Representatives voted, 300-131, last month to repeal the label requirements after the World Trade Organization ruled for a fourth time this spring that the labels put Canadian and Mexican livestock at a disadvantage. The U.S. has exhausted all of its appeals before the WTO in defense of the rule, which requires meat labels to show where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.
Canada and Mexico are now quantifying their level of harm from the rule and awaiting the WTO’s go-ahead to begin sanctions, which Doyle said could be put in place this fall.
The lopsided House vote and looming sanctions put pressure on the Senate, where Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., has called for legislation to address the issue.
“California in particular would feel the brunt of (retaliation), as tariffs against wine, cheese, beef, apples, tomatoes, chocolate and other products could cripple many companies,” Feinstein said in a statement. “Consumers deserve to know where the food they buy comes from, but we need to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t destabilize California exports.”
Canada has threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on more than three dozen American commodities, including beef, pork, rice, corn, apples, cherries and wine. The Canadian government has complained that the labeling regulation has cost cattle producers and related industries north of the border as much as $1 billion a year, though proponents of the rule dispute that figure.
The problem, critics of the rule say, is that American feedlots and processors must separate streams of cattle from different countries and keep track of them. That has limited access for cattle from Canada and Mexico, as many slaughter houses stopped accepting foreign cattle or paid a lower price for them to offset their added costs, critics say.
Since the North American Free Trade Agreement was enacted in the mid-1990s, the food economies of the United States, Canada and Mexico have become more interconnected, Doyle said.
“We had a highly integrated supply chain on the livestock side and that’s been good for consumers on both sides of the border,” Doyle said, adding that sometimes cattle crossed the border three or four times before slaughter.
Some groups, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, National Farmers Union and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, have called for changes to COOL that would bring it into compliance with trade obligations while allowing the labeling program to continue providing consumers with relevant information.
But Canadian trade officials would rather see the labels go away.
“Our position is that … we want the legislation repealed,” Doyle said. “There has been some discussions about a switch from mandatory (labeling) to voluntary, but the devil’s in the details on that sort of thing. What we’re trying to do is prevent this whole mandatory segregation and thus discrimination against Canadian livestock.”