WTO says labels will impose unnecessary costs; R-CALF says it will appeal
By TIM HEARDEN
A world body's decision to mostly side with Canada and Mexico in their dispute with the U.S. over meat labels drew a mixed reaction within the American beef industry.
A World Trade Organization panel ruled Nov. 18 the U.S. Department of Agriculture's country-of-origin labeling law was not akin to consumer labeling about the origin of produce and thus imposes an unnecessary extra cost for the Canadian and Mexican livestock industries.
The decision drew fire from the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, which has strongly backed the 2-year-old labeling law.
"We think we're relegated to the position of having only one reasonable option, and that is appealing the decision at the WTO level," R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said. "The other option is unacceptable, and that is to modify our country-of-origin labeling law to accommodate the desires of Canada and Mexico. Doing so would represent an erosion of our nation's sovereignty and our right to self-governance."
Colin Woodall, the National Cattlemen's Beef Association's vice president of government affairs, asserts the ruling proves the labeling law was a "disservice to U.S. Cattlemen and women" which could have "far-reaching implications" for American trade relations. He urged Congress to reverse the law.
"We must act quickly before U.S. farmers and ranchers once again face unnecessary and unfortunate retaliatory tariffs on their products," Woodall said in a statement.
The ruling confirmed rumblings earlier this summer that the WTO would issue findings that country-of-origin labels required for meat sold in the U.S. are unfair to its two neighbors. A preliminary report from the three-member dispute panel reportedly argued the U.S. labeling requirements act as a protectionist barrier while failing to adequately inform consumers of the origin of food.
The U.S. Cattlemen's Association noted the panel's final opinion did affirm the right of the United States to require such labeling for meat, but the panel disagreed with specifics of how the U.S. implemented its requirements.
The panel apparently believed the segregation required during processing puts foreign animals at a competitive disadvantage, while permitting a mixed-origin label doesn't provide consumers with accurate enough information, explained Danni Beer, a USCA director and COOL committee chair.
"The initial panel confirmed the ability to have a labeling law in place," said Jess Peterson, the USCA's executive vice president. "The thing that it ruled against was, supposedly on one level we were too prescriptive and on the other level we were not prescriptive enough. We're hoping to clarify those pieces."
Country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, was established by Congress in the 2002 Farm Bill and was expanded by lawmakers in 2008. The rule covers muscle cuts and ground beef, lamb, chicken, goat and pork, as well as other commodities.
Country-of-origin labeling: www.ams.usda.gov/COOL