U.S. appeal of WTO COOL ruling set for May

Exporters of Canadian livestock, meat and fresh produce would have some must-see TV on next week’s schedule, if they’re willing or able to go to Switzerland to see it.

The Appellate Body Division of the World Trade Organization (WTO) has hearings booked on May 2 and 3 in Geneva for the U.S. government’s appeal of a ruling against U.S. laws on mandatory country-of-origin labelling (COOL) for imported foods.

Following challenges by Canada and Mexico, a panel of the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) ruled in November last year that COOL is "inconsistent with the United States’ WTO obligations."

COOL, the DSB said at the time, unfairly affords "less favourable treatment to imported Canadian cattle and hogs than to like domestic products" and "does not fulfil its legitimate objective" of consumer education.

Washington on March 23 filed an appeal seeking to overturn the DSB’s ruling. Ottawa on March 28 threw in a counter-appeal, challenging the DSB’s statement that COOL had a "legitimate objective" in the first place.

COOL, spawned in Washington’s 2002 Farm Bill and launched in 2008, orders U.S. retailers to notify customers, by way of labeling, on the sources of foods such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat, fish, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts.

Both Canada and Mexico have long said COOL violates international trade laws, restricts market access and is a technical trade barrier. Canadian livestock groups say COOL forces unnecessary costs on U.S. processors, who now have to either segregate Canadian animals and meat for labelling purposes, or limit their imports from Canada.

Closed circuit

The WTO’s Appellate Body Division said last week it has decided to open the May 2-3 oral hearings to "public observation" — but only through a real-time closed-circuit TV broadcast in a separate room, for those able to show a valid passport and pass a security check.

Interested parties have until Thursday at 5 p.m. Geneva time to apply for seats at the public viewing, the WTO said, and no audio or video recorders, cellphones or smartphones can be used during the hearings.

Each of the expected two days of hearings begins at 9:30 a.m. Geneva time.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said it plans to have representatives in Geneva for the hearings, to support the Canadian government’s legal team and ensure the "strongest possible defence."

"COOL is an issue that costs our industry more than $100 million per year," the CCA said in a statement. "On an individual basis, COOL costs Canadian cattle producers at least $25 on every animal they sell regardless of whether it goes to the U.S. or not."

To date, the CCA said, it has incurred over $1 million in expenses on the COOL issue for advocacy in the U.S. and for legal fees, and "is not going to stand down from its effort until this issue is resolved."

A decision from the WTO Appellate Body is expected sometime in June, the CCA said.

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