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Ottawa to shelve WTO action on COOL

Canada has hit the pause button on its complaint to the World Trade Organization regarding the new U.S. rules on mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) on food.

The Reuters news service on Tuesday quoted federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz on a conference call from India, saying Canada’s request for formal consultations with the U.S. via the WTO dispute settlement process is now held “in abeyance.”

That means the complaint, filed last month, won’t be pursued for now but won’t be withdrawn either, in case it needs to be revived as Ottawa monitors how the U.S. government applies its final COOL rule, which Washington released Monday.

Ritz was quoted by Reuters Tuesday as saying that the price spread of U.S. meat over Canadian meat in U.S. markets had reached “wonky” levels while COOL was phased in, starting at the end of September, but he expected the spread to return to more normal levels.

Plans for COOL date back to the 2002 U.S. Farm Bill, but were delayed by legislative wrangling until 2006, and again until the end of September 2008. The bill required country-of-origin labelling for beef, pork and other imported commodities, and was expanded in the 2008 Farm Bill to cover chicken and goat meat.

The U.S. government in its final rule agreed to allow processors to use a COOL tag showing a “mixed origin,” for example saying beef was of “U.S. and Canadian origin.” That, in turn, should spare packers and feeders the expense of segregating animals that are designated Canadian.

“Foreign” interests

R-CALF USA, a protectionist U.S. cattle producers’ group, complained in a release Monday that the U.S. Agriculture Department’s final COOL rule “has kept in place the loophole that allows U.S. packers to commingle one foreign animal in each day’s production.”

That allows U.S. packers to label the entire day’s production as “mixed-country product,” even if all but one animal was of U.S. origin, the group said Monday.

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard said in the release that the final COOL rule also allows “bulk containers, such as a full-service meat counter, to have a ‘mixed origin’ label, even if some of the products are U.S. products and some are foreign.” Thus, Bullard argued, an entire meat counter could be labeled as “Product of U.S., Mexico and Canada.”

And USDA, Bullard said, has “further catered to the interests of foreign countries by watering down the labeling requirements for animals imported for immediate slaughter.”

Previously, R-CALF said, COOL required meat from those animals to be labeled as product of the foreign country and then the U.S., in that order, but this final rule allows USDA to change the order, listing the U.S. first, if again, the packers also are slaughtering foreign animals that were not imported for immediate slaughter during that production day.

The final rule, R-CALF said, “allows packers to emphasize U.S. origins and de-emphasize foreign origins of the animal.”

Furthermore, R-CALF said, the rule “continues to allow ground beef processors to include the name of a country on a ground beef label for as long as 60 days after the processor discontinued sourcing product from the foreign country. This could allow a processor to include the (Product of U.S.) label on a ground beef product even if no U.S. products were sourced during a 60-day period.”

The cattle group still has “a lot of work to do to ensure that U.S. products are clearly and properly labeled for consumers who wish to purchase food from U.S. farmers and ranchers,” Bullard said Monday.

“For months now, the packers have been effectively desensitizing U.S. consumers by mislabeling U.S. beef as if it were a North American product” — that is, “Product of the U.S., Canada, and Mexico,” Bullard said.

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