by Chris Clayton, DTN Ag Policy Editor
The U.S. Trade Representative's office released a statement putting a positive spin on the ruling that "affirmed the United States' right to adopt labeling requirements that provide information to American consumers about the meat they buy," said USTR Ambassador Ron Kirk. "The Appellate Body's ruling confirms that families can still receive information on the origin of their meat and other food products when they shop for groceries. The Obama administration remains committed to ensuring that information on the origin of all food products covered by COOL is available to American families so they can make informed purchasing decisions."
Still, in the heart of the dispute, the WTO ruled that COOL, as it is used now, creates an unfair competitive environment for imported Canadian and Mexican cattle and hogs. USDA officials declined to comment Friday on the ruling, but the USTR's office stated the two agencies are working to potentially change the USDA rule.
"The next step in the process is for the WTO dispute settlement body to adopt its recommendations and rulings," the USTR office stated. "The United States will then have a reasonable period of time to comply."
Canadian and Mexican livestock producers have complained since the rule was implemented that COOL discriminates against imported livestock because packers have to segregate their cattle or pork, prompting at least some packers to avoid buying imported livestock. Those buying Canadian or Mexican livestock have then used the law as an argument to offer lower prices for imported livestock.
Some U.S. agriculture groups on Friday declared the WTO ruling as a "split decision" that suggested no changes were needed to the U.S. law. Others claimed the ruling indicates USDA will have to rewrite COOL to eliminate discrimination against imported livestock.
"The ruling was a split decision," said Roger Johnson, president of the National Farmers Union, one of COOL's biggest backers. "It stated that imported animals are being discounted due to the segregation requirements and additional record keeping that is required to comply with the law. The good news is this can be changed through the regulatory process and there is no need to change the law that informs consumers from where their food comes. A statutory change is unnecessary and NFU will not support any such modification."
Mike Deering, a spokesman for the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, said USDA will have to go back and change the COOL rule or the Obama administration risks possible retaliatory tariffs on U.S. products.
"There is no way they (USDA) can proceed with this the way it is," Deering said. "They need to go back to the drawing board and rewrite the rule."
The National Pork Producers Council also called on the Obama administration to harmonize the North American hog market by changing the COOL rule. NPPC has been an opponent of COOL.
Jon Wooster, president of the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, said much of the rule is good news for cattle producers because the WTO reaffirmed the right of the U.S. to require country-of-origin labeling for meat. The issue is simply one of implementation, USCA stated. "USCA will be working closely with the Obama administration to ensure that any steps taken to implement the WTO findings conform to the requirements of the COOL law and will continue to maximize the benefits of the law for consumers and producers," Wooster said.
Other advocates of the law were much more condemning in their response. Food & Water Watch, for instance, stated the ruling "is an assault on American democracy and undermines the ability of Congress to give consumers basic information about the source of the food in their kitchens."
Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., also issued a statement critical of the WTO decision. "This irresponsible ruling allows big meat companies to undercut Montana producers with cheap, foreign beef," Tester said. "And it denies consumers the right to know where their meat comes from. That's not fair trade, it's a slap in the face to Montana ranchers and consumers."
COOL has been divisive since it was originally approved by Congress in the 2002 farm bill. Lawmakers effectively blocked USDA from implementing the provision by eliminating funding for USDA to adopt the rule. Language was changed in the 2008 farm bill and the Obama administration moved ahead with the labeling rule despite criticism from Canada and Mexico.
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