WTO seen putting chill on U.S. COOL

Claims that a new preliminary World Trade Organization ruling favours Canada’s 2009 challenge of U.S. country-of-origin labelling (COOL) have popped up from all manner of sources — just not from official Ottawa or Washington or the WTO itself.

Sources reporting at least a partial victory for Canada’s challenge include the Washington-based National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), which on Thursday said a preliminary ruling had been handed down last Friday (May 20) to the parties involved.

The NCBA, which has long been on record as opposing mandatory COOL, claims the ruling from the WTO’s Dispute Settlement Body finds COOL requirements violate provisions of the WTO’s agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT).

The WTO body “ruled U.S. COOL requirements do not fulfill the stated U.S. objective of helping inform consumers of the origin of meat and, consequently, violate the TBT agreement,” the NCBA said Thursday.

“It is also very important to note that this ruling is very much preliminary and all of the details are not yet known,” NCBA president Bill Donald said in the association’s release.

The NCBA said the WTO will “reportedly make the ruling public sometime in September,” after which the U.S. government gets two months to decide whether to file an appeal.

The NCBA, the largest cattle producers’ group in the U.S., did not say how it got a look at a ruling yet to be made public.

Another U.S. ranchers’ group, the pro-COOL Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF USA), also quoted the WTO preliminary ruling in a release Thursday, citing “a report issued by the respected Bureau of National Affairs,” an Arlington, Va.-based information services firm.

R-CALF said the ruling “strikes down the United States’ consumer information law that requires many foods in U.S. grocery stores to be labeled with their country of origin.”

First conceived in Washington’s 2002 Farm Bill and launched in September 2008, COOL requires U.S. retailers to notify their customers through labelling on the sources of foods such as beef, veal, pork, lamb, goat, fish, fruits, vegetables, peanuts, pecans and macadamia nuts.

Both Canada and Mexico contend that COOL violates international trade laws, restricts market access and constitutes a technical trade barrier.

Canadian livestock groups say the law has forced unnecessary costs on U.S. meat processors, who now must either segregate Canadian animals and meat for labelling purposes, or curb their imports from Canada.

“Read with interest”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which along with the Canadian Pork Council had asked the Canadian government to challenge COOL at the WTO, would only say Thursday that it “has read with interest the media reports” about the preliminary ruling.

The CCA — which provided the Canadian government’s trade team with a WTO legal analysis for its challenge — also said it “looks forward to the final WTO report being issued later this year.”

The NCBA on Thursday said COOL has had the opposite effect from what the legislation’s supporters intended.

“Proponents of COOL have always believed that restricting imports of Mexican and/or Canadian feeder cattle will decrease the supply of feeder cattle in the United States and increase the price of U.S. origin feeder cattle,” said Donald, a rancher from Melville, Mont., about 165 km west of Billings.

“In reality, reducing the number of cattle in the marketplace also reduces the infrastructure of the U.S. beef industry,” he said Thursday.

R-CALF CEO Bill Bullard, on the other hand, ripped the WTO Thursday as “an unelected, foreign tribunal that is attempting to strike down our constitutionally passed law.

“If U.S. citizens no longer have the right to have a label on their food that informs them of where their food came from, then our sovereign rights as citizens of this great nation have already been eroded.”

Juliane von Reppert-Bismarck, a writer with the Reuters news service, reported Thursday that an unnamed WTO official confirmed an interim report was circulated to officials with the Canadian, U.S. and Mexican governments on May 20.

The WTO “declined to comment on (the report’s) contents, citing its confidentiality,” von Reppert-Bismarck wrote.

Related Story: Canada asks for WTO panel on COOL, Oct. 7, 2009

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