Last week, the World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a decision on the U.S. country of origin labeling (COOL) rules for meat, drawing mixed reactions and creating some confusion among industry groups. On Monday, AgriTalk Radio’s Mike Adams spoke with representatives on either side of the dispute -- Canadian Cattlemen's Association president Martin Unrau and Tim Reif, general counsel for the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR).
For background, the United States implemented COOL for certain food products in 2008. Canada and Mexico, which both export cattle to the United States, and import U.S. beef, filed a complaint with the WTO, which initially ruled in their favor. The USTR appealed the initial ruling, and WTO ruled on the appeal last week.
Representing USTR, Reif says the ruling is more of a mixed result than a victory for Canada and Mexico. The decision acknowledges we have the right to provide information to consumers on country of origin for beef and other products. On top of that, he says, the appellate body overturned one of the arguments Canada and Mexico used against us, that the rule was more trade restrictive than necessary. “Actually, he says, it was not a bad day for us.”
Now, Reif says, the USTR will need to deal with the way the statute is applied. The WTO will officially adopt the ruling in about a month, after which the United States will have a reasonable time, usually about a year, to implement changes for compliance. During that time, he says, the USTR will work with USDA, producers, processors and retailers to identify steps to take.
The core issue, he says, is the “upstream” record keeping burden on ranchers and importers is disproportionate to the amount information that record keeping actually provided to consumers. Reif says USTR will work to reconcile this by evaluating what we’re asking for and what we’re providing to consumers. This could mean providing more information to consumers or asking less of producers upstream.
Reif defended the decision to appeal the initial WTO ruling, saying the USTR has all along reached out to domestic stakeholders and to our trade partners, often without success. He would have preferred Canada and Mexico negotiate, and was surprised when they filed the complaint with the WTO in August 2009.
Results of the appeal showed, he says, the early decision “was wrong and we won an important victory.” Now, he believes, the United States is in a better position to negotiate. He does not expect any retaliation from Canada or Mexico in the immediate or foreseeable future. The USTR will spend the next year working toward compliance with the WTO ruling, he says, and will reach out to stakeholders to develop a COOL process that works effectively and efficiently for everyone involved.