THE World Trade Organization issued a ruling last year requiring the U.S. Department of Agriculture to improve its country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law after Canada and Mexico successfully challenged the measure.
USDA's proposed revision to the COOL rule — published March 12 — has already received threats of retaliatory measures from the two countries. Supporters of COOL, however, say those threats are overstated, and they stand behind the proposed rule.
USDA has until May 23 to issue a final rule, and National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson said he expects the agency to meet that deadline since the comment period has already closed and the rule "isn't very complicated."
Jon Wooster, president of the U.S. Cattlemen's Assn., said the new COOL proposal makes the labeling stronger and more meaningful for consumers. The change means U.S. meat products can no longer be commingled with those from other countries without being labeled as such. It also requires the label to clarify where the source animal was born, raised and slaughtered.
Earlier this spring, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Canada was considering up to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs if the U.S. moves forward with the proposed COOL rule. Mexico also has threatened to retaliate.
Wooster pointed out, though, that retaliation is "not going to happen overnight, and if indeed it gets to that point, it will take months and months."
He explained that the WTO dispute process will require several consultations and panel reviews and then approval of the trade sanctions.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, said this rule change is the first time the U.S. has ever complied with a WTO ruling by actually improving the information that will be provided to consumers.
Wallach added that how WTO, Mexico and Canada react to the rule will be very "telling."
Since Mexico and Canada are both involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations, retaliation is "hardly a way to get a good agreement," she said.
If WTO sides with the two countries, Wallach noted that it would "undermine the very shaky legitimacy" of the trade group because if it strikes down the rule, it is denying consumers basic information.
"If the WTO is not going to accept a USDA proposal that, on the merits, actually complies with the ruling and basically takes the side of the packer, it will be extremely revealing on the political perspective," Wallach added.
Patty Lovera, assistant director at Food & Water Watch, explained that many label claims are unregulated, but because COOL is law, it is standardized and "means something," and the technical change will make it even more accurate for consumers. She said there is a benefit to having this rule rather than a "marketing free-for-all" such as exists with other labels.
Johnson said he doesn't expect Congress to take up this issue again because it "would make an already difficult farm bill more controversial."