This is an excerpt reprinted with permission from The Hagstrom Report, a news service providing original national and international agricultural news to its subscribers.
The House Agriculture Committee on Wednesday approved H.R. 2393, a bill to repeal country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork and chicken, but the road to resolution of the longstanding conflict with Canada and Mexico over the labeling program is still likely to be long.
The vote was 38 to 6.
All committee Republicans voted for the bill. House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., and Reps. Timothy Walz, D-Minn., Michelle Lujan Grisham, D-N.M., Jim McGovern, D-Mass., Ann Kuster, D-N.H., and Rick Nolan, D-Minn., voted against it.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, noted in a news release that a bipartisan total of 68 House members have joined him in co-sponsoring the bill, which leaves intact the requirements for all other commodities covered under the labeling provisions that have been part of farm bills since 2002.
The World Trade Organization issued a fourth ruling Monday finding that the U.S. labeling program discriminated against Canadian and Mexican producers who wanted to send their cattle and pigs to the United States to be slaughtered, but were hindered because slaughterhouses have to keep their pigs and cattle separate from American animals in order to make the labeling accurate.
Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, noted that he had supported labeling, but believed “there was a way for packers to accommodate the situation.” King noted that some packers said they would not accept Canadian pigs, while others said they would only accept them on Mondays.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., Conaway’s co-sponsor, emphasized that it is important to avoid retaliation because Canada has threatened to increase tariffs on California wine.
“This no longer about labeling, it is about potential harsh retaliation,” Costa said.
(A list of products that Canada said in 2013 it would consider for retaliation is linked below.)
Peterson acknowledged that he “thought the language in the 2008 farm bill was something we could all live with, but that wasn’t the case.” Still, he said, “Repealing COOL is premature.”
“Of course no one wants to see retaliation but it’s important to point out that there are still several steps that have to occur before that would take place,” Peterson continued.
“Given what we have seen in the past — it took 15 months for the arbitration panel to issue a ruling in the U.S.-Brazil cotton case — it’s unlikely the panel will rule on COOL retaliation within their 60-day window.
“I think we should take a serious look at the mandatory labeling requirements that are in place in more than 60 other countries,” Peterson said.
“EU [European Union] labeling rules, for example, require indication of the country of birth, fattening and slaughter. If a cow is born, raised, and slaughtered in the same country, then that is the country of origin. Imported beef can be labeled as “non-EU” if information is not available.
For meats originating from countries where information about the animal may be unknown, the system allows for alternative claims of origin.”
Peterson added, “I don’t think this is the best way to avoid retaliation and, quite frankly, I don’t think the Senate will be able to pass a repeal. I would suggest that we instead take some time to thoughtfully consider our next steps.”
The North American Meat Institute, which represents the packers, praised the vote and urged Congress to repeal the program.
“The U.S. made a promise to live up to it WTO obligations,” said NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter.
“We have not kept that promise and WTO panels have told us so four times,” Carpenter said. “It’s time we listen.”
“Today’s action is the first step towards full repeal and can help the United States avoid the retaliatory tariffs promised by Canada and Mexico,” he said.
The United States Cattlemen’s Association, which has favored labeling, called the legislation “a gross overreach of congressional authority.”
“Not only does the proposed legislation attempt to circumvent an ongoing case at the World Trade Organization, regarding COOL, it also extends the criteria by which to repeal COOL,” said USCA President Danni Beer.
“The addition of chicken to the list of products to be affected by the repeal is disturbing since chicken was not a part of the original WTO case filed by Canada and Mexico against COOL,” Beer noted,
“Opponents of COOL are encouraging Congress to limit consumer information and are exploiting a ruling by the WTO before the international trade process has been completed,” she said. “Congress does not need to insert itself until statutory action is necessary.”
“For USCA, the centerpiece of COOL has been, and always will be, the consumers’ right to information about how and where their food is produced and U. S. ranchers’ right to differentiate their product from that of a generic commodity in which the identity of U. S. beef would be lost forever,” Beer said.
National Chicken Council President Michael Brown said that the chicken industry had asked to be included in the repeal of labeling because industry leaders believed that Canada and Mexico might retaliate against U.S. chicken.
“While we cannot speak on behalf of Canada and Mexico as to why they limited their WTO appeal on COOL to pork and beef, we are keenly aware that chicken was near the top of the list for retaliation by both countries,” Brown said.
“NCC supports legislative action that will allow U.S. laws and regulations pertaining to meat and poultry to be compliant with our international trade obligations.”
Brown also said that potential imports of Chinese chicken had nothing to do with the decision, although he added that if China can meet U.S. standards it should be allowed to export to the United States.
“We don’t expect any chicken to be imported from China. More than 99 percent of the chicken we eat in the U.S. is hatched, raised and processed here,” NCC spokesman Tom Super added in an email.
Brown declined to comment on why the chicken industry had asked to be included in the labeling program some years ago, noting he was not working for NCC at that time.
The House action and the WTO decision will also apparently pave the way for labeling of venison.
The House bill specifically continues labeling for lamb and venison, and labeling those products is not considered to be a problem because the animals are raised and slaughtered within the same country.
Section 12104 of the 2014 farm bill added venison to the list of commodities to be labeled, but USDA has not required them or listed venison as a covered product.
“That will require rulemaking, which we were waiting to do because of the WTO litigation,” Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said in an email.
The Hagstrom Report covers Congressional hearings, markups and press conferences in Washington D.C., as well as national nutrition news and farm meetings throughout the United States. Subscribers to The Hagstrom Report receive a digital newsletter daily while Congress is in session and at other times as events require and news happens.