COOL compromise may not be possible

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts discusses impact of retaliatory tariffs and the need to act soon.

Senate Agriculture Committee chairman Pat Roberts (R., Kan.) said he’s “working overtime to reach a compromise” for country-of-origin labeling that satisfies the nation’s top trading partners Canada and Mexico as well as meat groups but it “does not appear to be possible.”

The World Trade Organization has ruled that COOL discriminates against Canadian and Mexican livestock sent to the United States to be fed out and processed, violating international trade rules four separate times. A WTO arbitration panel now is determining the level of retaliation; Canada and Mexico have asked for a combined $3.1 billion. The WTO decision on the retaliation amount is expected to be issued Dec. 7.

In an exclusive interview with Feedstuffs, Roberts explained that after four rulings against the United States, if Congress repeals COOL there is “no retaliation, no sanctions, no problem, it’s as simple as that.”

Earlier this fall he tried to move a bill similar to what the House did which fully repeals COOL and would be the only action acceptable to Mexico and Canada to prevent sanctions, he said. However, he doesn’t have the votes in the Senate Agriculture Committee to move a full repeal forward.

Roberts said there are some on the committee “who think their legislation is an answer” referencing a bill introduced by Senate Agriculture committee chairman ranking member Debbie Stabenow (D., Mich.) and Sen. John Hoeven (R., N.D.) which would create a voluntary labeling system. The Hoeven-Stabenow bill has 16 cosponsors in total, five of them Republicans.

Roberts said Canada has made it extremely clear that COOL is a trade infringement and they will continue to respond aggressively until the United States becomes compliant.

Reiterating newly-elected Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s position, new minister of agriculture Lawrence MacAulay recently said the Canadian government will uphold the Conservative party’s decision to pursue trade retaliation against the United States over COOL. According to the National Pork Producers Council in a press interview, MacAulay said of retaliation, “It’s not what we want to do, but if we were forced to do it, it’s something that we would likely have to do.”

Roberts said if the WTO approves sanction levels on Dec. 7, those retaliatory actions could go into effect as soon as Dec. 18. He said the Senate could possibly pass something by unanimous consent if needed, and added he’s “going to give it several final shots” to get a fix in place yet this year. He said something very dramatic may have to happen before the Senate Agriculture Committee is convinced to move.

“It’s in limbo right now and until we can get these people convinced that their legislation is not the answer, we’re going to keep moving forward,” Roberts said.

He referenced that cotton producers had to go through similar turmoil over a WTO case involving the marketing programs and in the end the U.S. had to pay.

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