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.