WTO smacks the USDA again

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A flag has been tossed....again....and the ref has blown his whistle....again.  All that remains is the short time it will take him to turn on the public address system and make the same announcement he made the last time the same illegal play was called. No, I'm not talking about 'Bama vs Auburn or Oklahoma State vs Oklahoma.  In some quarters, this call will be even more contentious and controversial than the "Swindle in the Swamp," that notorious Florida/Florida State game in 2003 that still has the Gator nation gnashing its teeth.

In January, the always fiery Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA's Chief Executive Officer, showed his teeth. While speaking for an ad hoc amalgamation of 98 industry and public organizations, he said they would give no quarter on the COOL controversy.  In a letter to the farm bill committee, he wrote, “The widespread reports circulating on Capitol Hill indicated that the USTR was capitulating to the pressures by COOL opponents, primarily the National Cattlemen's Beef Association (NCBA) and their transnational meatpacker allies, to weaken, if not eliminate COOL”

The letter insisted that consumers and farmers overwhelmingly supported the original COOL rule requiring retailers to tell consumers where the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered.  The mobility of the North American cattle herd, though, makes for some very complicated record keeping and confusing labeling.

But Bullard's rant was for naught. The World Trade Organization (WTO) again ruled against the U.S. in a trade dispute with Canada and Mexico over country-of-origin labeling for meat products, according to the Wall Street Journal's secret sources.

The WTO has whispered its decision to the participating nations.  All that is left is for a formal public announcement sometime next month, blinding speed for an organization that first undertook hearings on this trade dispute in 2008. The Journal's sources whispered that the WTO has decided the new U.S. rules to place mandatory labels on meat packages identifying where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered were just as unfair as the original rules.

James Hodges, American Meat Institute president and chief executive officer, said the final ruling “comes as no surprise.”  He said the U.S. will have the option to appeal but encouraged USDA to work with the industry and Congress to amend the COOL statute so that it complies with international obligations.

“Such a change would help restore strong relationships with some of our largest and most important trading partners,” he said. “USDA’s mandatory COOL rule is not only onerous and burdensome on livestock producers and meat packers and processors, it does not bring the U.S. into compliance with its WTO obligations.”

Jodi Bond, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce Vice President for the Americas, agreed with Hodges. “The U.S. must comply with its international trade obligations. Together Canada, Mexico and the United States make up one of the most competitive and successful regional economic platforms in the world. The disruption of that partnership by WTO noncompliance would have a devastating economic impact on industries including food production, agriculture, and manufacturing."

And I'll add that if all the USDA wanted to do was rearrange a few commas, throw in a few innocuous paragraphs and expect the new plan to fly, they should have expected that bit of trickeration to fail miserably.  Vilsack may have been forced to bow to a few protectionist American cattle industry interests but he fumbled the ball badly in the process.

Canada and Mexico had correctly argued that the original labeling rule put their meat exports at a competitive disadvantage on the U.S. market.  American special interests were unmoved. American consumers deserved to know where their food comes from, especially if it originated from countries with questionable food safety standards.  The problem with that argument is the U.S., Canadian and Mexican standards are essentially identical. 

Earlier this month, Food Safety News reported that members of Congress, well aware of economic pains that will be caused by a threatened North American trade war, advised the U.S. Department of Agriculture to drop the labeling law if WTO ruled against it.

When the WTO decision is made public, some American special interests will lobby hard for another appeal or to abandon all restrictive trade agreements. If they're successful and the process is stretched out as far as possible, Canada will be authorized to impose retaliatory tariffs on U.S. exports next summer. In Chicago, last fall, I listened to Canadian Ag Minister Gerry Ritz deliver one of the most sabre-rattling speeches ever delivered by a representative of that most polite of countries.  He left no doubt that they are absolutely committed to strike back. Here is the full list of proposed products Canada plans to target.

If the USDA insists on following its current path and a trade war develops, is the damage to the fragile American economy and the loss of good will between the three nations of North America worth the protectionism urged by some? I think it's time to look at the broader issues.  

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Cork Meyer    
Wyoming  |  August, 25, 2014 at 09:38 AM

The WTO is nothing more than a very poor org. in the first place. If other countries and the packers are so proud of their purchases from Canada and Mexico then they should be proud to show it as from those countries. US producers supply a superior and safer product than either of the other countries do and it should be packaged that way. Sorry Chuck but US consumers deserve to know they are eating US MADE BEEF

August, 25, 2014 at 10:42 AM

So take your superior US raised beef and label it as such! Lett the public choose between "mainstream" beef and your superior US meat.

Ken Ziegler    
Alberta Canada  |  August, 25, 2014 at 10:45 AM

Actually Cork, US or shall I say North American consumers deserve to eat safe, healthy and nutrutious meat regardless of which country it comes from. Canada provides the same level of safety for any meat and offers your and our consumer a fine eating experience. Remember that we are major importers of US product and benefit from a North American market in the same way that you do. Let's agree to partner rather than to segregate at an unneccesary expense. Together we're stronger!

shaun evertson    
nebraska  |  August, 25, 2014 at 12:36 PM

This whole argument is stupid, as is turning to government regulation for the solution. Equally stupid is this juvenile notion about what consumers "deserve." It's clear that consumers want more info about food origins and production methods. They should have the option to exercise their purchase power along those lines. So why the heck not give it to them via the market? Why can't producers, packers and retailers voluntarily make the info available at the pos? Good lord, we've all got the technology to do this easily and WE CAN ALL REALIZE A PREMIUM! But no, that would be a win-win. We'd rather cede what little control we still have to government and endure whatever happens. SMH.

August, 25, 2014 at 02:14 PM

1) Surveys have shown the vast majority of consumers have not paid any attention to COOL. 2) Origin can be voluntarily identified. 3) No, it can not be done easily. Integrated industries such as today's poultry and hogs can keep track rather easily. Beef production is anything but integrated. 4) Tariffs on other products, many not agricultural, will force the US to give up COOL. Do we think those who export those other products are going to stand by and let a stupid intra-beef industry fight cost them business?

chicago-Kansas  |  August, 25, 2014 at 02:43 PM

Country of origin is a disaster. When first spoken of I argued that at that time NY was receiving Argentine beef-grass fed- with it being in strong demand at higher prices. Be careful of what is wished for. Now it must be banished.

W. E.    
August, 25, 2014 at 02:56 PM

Whatever happened to "the customer is always right?" Keep defending unsustainable industrial methods, trying to justify feeding LFTB to school children instead of putting it in pet food, arguing about COOL, and we will keep serving the needs and meeting the demands of our local customers who want local grassfed beef produced entirely on a local farm by people they can talk to. Our customers are real people with real children and real health issues. They don't want beef from steers grown in a feedlot a thousand miles away using GMO corn that might cause acidosis, beefed up with hormones, steroids, Zilmax or other additives, or fed antibiotics to keep them from getting sick. By selling beef grown here from conception to consumer, we are working hard to provide what the customer wants, simply and directly, with little or no help from the beef industry and its checkoff dollars or the USDA or the WTO. Meanwhile, our steers are improving the quality of the soils on our farm, building a layer of flood-and-drought-resistant humus through management-intensive grazing and free solar power, saving petroleum fuel and requiring only lime as fertilizer. We have been raising cattle since the mid-1960's, struggled for decades to meet industry demands; profits were highly unreliable. Selling directly to consumers since 2003, every year has brought profits, and many repeat customers who are very happy with our product. In addition to registered breeding stock, our small farm produced enough beef to fill the freezers of 60 families and fed over 270 people in 2013. COOL or no COOL, we are doing our best to meet customer demand. You have derided us, Mr. Jolley, but we are true sustainability in action, making friends for beef.

Grover Shade    
Texas  |  August, 25, 2014 at 04:56 PM

When I buy any product including meat I want to know where it came from and I think most consumers feel the same way.

shaun evertson    
nebraska  |  August, 25, 2014 at 06:18 PM

And then there's reality...

shaun evertson    
nebraska  |  August, 25, 2014 at 06:20 PM

You're kind of missing the point. Put the round peg in the round hole and get the government out of it. Easy peasy lemon squeezy.

MT  |  August, 25, 2014 at 08:18 PM

Chuck, What are you, NCBA, meat packers going to do when all of our beef export customers want U.S. beef? Does it seem right that the packers have to segregate beef for our foreign beef customers since almost all demand product of U.S.A. What about our U.S. customers? If the NCBA is successful in killing COOL, they might as well forget about getting a raise in the beef check off. The NCBA's operating budget is roughly 82% check off and the balance their membership. Don't be so one sided on your views. We support COOL.

Kansas  |  August, 26, 2014 at 06:24 AM

Shaun, saying that it is clear that consumers want more info about food origins and production methods is far to broad of a statement. Most consumers don't care. A few vocal consumers, maybe. As for a 'voluntary' approach to labeling, I fear the mess that would create by allowing everyone involved to establish their own rules would make the entire concept unreliable and confusing. Letting the government set a standard is not 'ceding control,' it's reaching a workable agreement.

Kansas  |  August, 26, 2014 at 06:29 AM

W.E., you serve a nice, small niche but your claims about unsustainability and GMO's, hormones, steroids, etc. harm the rest of an industry that does its best to supply beef to the marketplace. Your products are an alternative. To assume superiority is unwarranted.

Thom Katt    
Midwest  |  August, 26, 2014 at 05:42 PM

W.E. you are kind of a regressive thinker. I might be able to prove it to you but I am not confident that is possible. You should be arguing against COOL labeling to protect your product. Right now, you label and you are danged proud of it, even if the label is only verbal and not a sticker on a package. If commodity beef loses the COOL label, some of the consumers buying it will migrate over to your product because they want to know all the points of information you listed. If commodity beef keeps the COOL label at your insistence, you cut yourself out of market share. Really W.E. if your product is as a good as you say it is and you are selling all you can produce, the COOL label thing shouldn't even show up on your radar. You shouldn't have to denigrate the product of someone else to sell your product.

Big boy    
Texas  |  August, 29, 2014 at 12:30 PM

The problem here is the NCBA working with the packers. So wright the Secretary of ag and ask him to kill the current checkoff and right a new one without the NCBA fingers in it.

Big boy    
Texas  |  August, 29, 2014 at 12:30 PM

The problem here is the NCBA working with the packers. So wright the Secretary of ag and ask him to kill the current checkoff and right a new one without the NCBA fingers in it.

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