No changes seen to COOL in new U.S. Farm Bill

Revised U.S. laws requiring retailers to carry specific country-of-origin labels on muscle cuts go back to a WTO compliance panel next month for review. (Canada Beef Inc. photo)

Canadian livestock groups’ hopes for change in the U.S. government’s mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) laws on meat now return to the World Trade Organization (WTO), as no such changes have shown up in the U.S. Congress’ proposed new Farm Bill.

U.S. Senate and House negotiators on Monday announced a bipartisan deal on a new five-year bill. However, proponents of COOL in Congress were “unwilling” to add in “any amendment to the COOL statute that would have allowed the U.S. to meet its international obligations,” the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said.

Thus, CCA said Monday, COOL “is expected to remain unaltered” when the proposed Farm Bill goes to the House of Representatives for approval in a vote expected to be held Wednesday.

In the U.S., the Farm Bill governs risk management programming for crop producers; ag conservation programs; ag export development and foreign food aid; farm credit programming, including direct loans and loan guarantees; and nutrition programs, such as food stamps.

During recent Farm Bill talks, the CCA said Monday, the association’s representatives advanced “several” proposals to amend the COOL rules that “would have maintained the core program, thus providing U.S. consumers with origin information, while eliminating the discriminatory effects on Canada’s livestock trade.”

The CCA said it would have gone so far as to support Canada shutting down its current WTO dispute compliance case against COOL, if the association’s “preferred proposal” to Congress had been accepted.

“Not the place”

Alleged pressure on other fronts for changes to COOL, meanwhile, has earned the notice of COOL’s supporters.

A U.S. group, the Center for Rural Affairs, on Friday issued a release quoting unspecified “reports” which alleged the office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) has been “lobbying the Farm Bill conferees to weaken the COOL law.”

“Widespread reports circulating on Capitol Hill indicate that the (USTR) was capitulating to the pressures by COOL opponents, primarily the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) and their transnational meatpacker allies, to weaken, if not eliminate COOL,” Bill Bullard, CEO of rancher group R-CALF USA, said in the CRA release.

“When we learned that the USTR was pressuring Farm Bill conferees to replace current COOL rules with a ‘Product of North America’ label for meat from animals imported in the U.S., we knew it was time for urgent action,” CRA media director John Crabtree said in the release, calling such a label “entirely unacceptable.”

The Farm Bill conference committee, he added, “is not the place for this effort to undermine COOL. It is an effort to undue (sic) democratic decision-making behind the closed doors at the 11th hour of the Farm Bill debate.”

Compliance panel next month

The U.S. Department of Agriculture released its latest version of COOL last May, after the law’s 2008 form was ruled out of order by the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) in 2011 and WTO Appellate Body in 2012, for discriminating against Canadian and Mexican livestock and meat.

Under the May revisions, in effect since late November, COOL’s labeling provisions for muscle cuts now require covered products’ labels to include even more specific information about where each production step (birth, raising, slaughter) took place. The new rule also yanked the previous rule’s allowance for commingling of muscle cuts.

The WTO DSB agreed in September to requests from Canada and Mexico for a compliance panel, to rule on whether USDA’s May changes to COOL meet Washington’s WTO obligations.

The compliance panel recently announced it will hear Canada’s and Mexico’s case on Feb. 18 and 19 at the WTO’s headquarters in Geneva.

Following an “inevitable appeal” of whatever the compliance panel decides, the CCA said, “if this process must continue fully to its conclusion,” Canada could be in a position in the first half of 2015 to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports.

The Canadian government has already released its list of possible targets for retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods, such as U.S. beef, pork, cereals, baked goods, fresh fruit and “many other items produced in areas represented by congressmen and senators who opposed a resolution in the Farm Bill,” the CCA noted. — Network

Related stories:
U.S. congressional negotiators reach deal on Farm Bill, Jan. 27, 2014
WTO compliance panel to probe revisions to COOL, Sept. 27, 2013

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