Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz refutes a U.S. trade newsletter’s report which suggests Canada sought to go soft on its dispute with the U.S. over its country-of-origin labelling (COOL) rules on food imports.
The recent report from the Arlington, Va.-based newsletter Inside U.S. Trade was cited Wednesday in a press release from the federal opposition Liberals.
The newsletter quotes “confidential letters” from January as saying Canada would agree to not request a World Trade Organization panel (WTO) in its dispute over the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law, until the U.S. government’s final COOL rule had been in place for eight months.
The two countries at that point had just held WTO-supported consultations on the matter, meant as a way for trade disputes to be resolved without resorting to an official panel hearing by the WTO Dispute Resolution Body.
The newsletter had also quoted the January letters as saying the two countries aimed to seek a “mutually agreed solution” to the dispute after the end of the eight-month period.
But Ritz, in a response Wednesday to the Liberals’ release, said the letters in question became out of date in February, when the incoming administration of U.S. President Barack Obama tightened COOL regulations affecting Canadian livestock.
“The Liberals have got it completely wrong, again,” Ritz said, noting that the Canadian government on May 11 officially filed for “supplemental” consultations on COOL with the U.S. at the WTO.
Canada had held its first round of consultations with U.S. officials in December last year. Afterward, it announced it would put its dispute on hold when it appeared that the outgoing Bush administration’s interpretation of its COOL rule wouldn’t seriously impede imports from Canada.
On Feb. 20, however, Obama’s new agriculture secretary Tom Vilsack issued an open letter to the U.S. industry, instead urging the use of stricter and broader labelling practices. Otherwise, Vilsack wrote, he would consider reviewing the COOL rule’s language to impose tighter restrictions.
“Right now we’re working with the industry to analyze and collect quantifiable information about COOL’s impact on the Canadian producers,” Ritz said Wednesday. “We’ll keep working with industry to analyze that information as we continue to build our case to defend Canadian producers.”
Citing the Inside U.S. Trade report, the Liberals’ international trade critic Scott Brison said in a release Wednesday that the Conservative government’s “reluctance to pursue a (WTO) challenge against American (COOL) is putting our beef and pork industry at risk.”
“Canadian farmers are already facing devastating blows from severe drought, flooding, increased input costs and unjustified trade restrictions — the last thing they need at a time like this is their government rolling over to U.S. interests,” the Liberals’ agriculture critic Wayne Easter said in the same release.
Easter described the report as “yet another blow that has producers seriously wondering what this government has against them.”
Ritz replied Wednesday that the Conservatives “continue to make the bottom-line message clear to our American neighbours: we will always stand up for Canadian producers and make sure they’re treated fairly under the WTO.”
Several other countries’ governments have applied in recent months to join Canada’s consultations with the U.S. on COOL. The U.S. government in June told the WTO Dispute Settlement Body that it has now accepted Mexico’s request to join the consultations.
COOL imposes mandatory labelling for beef, pork, lamb, chicken and goat meat, and certain perishable commodities sold at retail outlets in the U.S. Imported fish and shellfish have been covered under COOL since 2005.
For meat to be labelled as a product of the U.S., all production activities (birth, rearing, slaughtering) have to occur in the U.S. For meat derived from animals of different national origins, COOL requires a label to indicate the country or countries where each animal was born, raised or slaughtered.
The Canadian government and producer groups have expressed concern for years that COOL would impose added costs at each stage of the process, from U.S. feedlots right through to the U.S. grocer’s meat case.
The fear has been that U.S. processors, for instance, would choose not to buy Canadian animals or may look to buy them at deep discounts to offset the costs of segregating animals for labelling purposes.