Washington, D.C.—Today, a coalition of 142 rancher, farmer, rural, consumer, manufacturer, labor, faith and environmental groups from across the United States delivered a letter urging the Senate to reject both the effort to repeal the country of origin labeling (COOL) law and the so-called compromise to convert COOL into a voluntary labeling program for beef, pork and chicken. Congress enacted COOL for beef, pork, chicken, goat, lamb, seafood and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables in the 2002 and 2008 Farm Bills and expanded COOL to cover venison in the 2014 Farm Bill. Consumers overwhelmingly support these labels.
Rather than bow to pressure from the meatpacker lobby, the letter urges the Senate “to defend consumers’ right to know where their food comes from and the ability of farmers and ranchers to proudly identify their livestock as born and raised in America.”
In 2008, Canada and Mexico challenged COOL at the World Trade Organization (WTO), contending that these commonsense labels were a barrier to trade. Canada and Mexico have threatened an absurdly high penalty designed to frighten the U.S. Congress into rashly repealing COOL rather than allowing the WTO dispute process to be completed.
“It is premature for Congress to unilaterally surrender to saber-rattling from our trading partners in the midst of a long-standing dispute. COOL opponents have highlighted Mexico and Canada’s threats of retaliation as if their aspiration to seek billions of dollars in penalties were already approved by the WTO. But these unapproved, unrealistically high retaliation claims are merely aggressive litigation tactics designed to frighten the United States, a standard practice in WTO disputes. Congress should not fall for it,” the letter observes.
Last month, the House of Representatives passed a bill to repeal COOL for muscle-cuts of meat and ground beef, pork and chicken. Last week, dueling COOL amendments were offered on the Senate highway bill. Senator Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) introduced an amendment to totally repeal COOL that was identical to the House repeal bill. Senators Debbie Stabenow (D-Mich.) and John Hoeven (R-N.D.) introduced legislation that repealed mandatory COOL for beef, pork, chicken and ground meat but gave the U.S. Department of Agriculture the discretion to establish a voluntary COOL labeling program for only some of those meat products. The Stabenow-Hoeven measure was also offered as an amendment to the highway bill being considered this week in the Senate.
Both the full repeal and voluntary COOL measures inappropriately include chicken and ground meat even though the WTO ruled that the COOL labels for ground meat were WTO-legal and the dispute never considered chicken. The letter notes, “the legislation would repeal COOL for ground beef and ground pork as well as for chicken, but the WTO explicitly ruled that the COOL label on ground meat was WTO-legal, and the WTO never addressed chicken or other covered commodities.”
The broad-based coalition vehemently opposes any effort to repeal COOL but also opposes any effort to weaken COOL, including converting it into a voluntary labeling program. The United States had a voluntary COOL program for meat prior to implementing the mandatory labeling program under the 2008 Farm Bill, but the meatpackers refused to participate in the voluntary program.
“Voluntary COOL labeling is no solution to the WTO dispute: Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it, farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it and Canada and Mexico have already bluntly rejected this so-called compromise. Voluntary COOL is indistinguishable from repealing COOL,” the letter states.
Providing commonsense information to consumers is not something that should be left solely to the discretion of the meatpacking, food manufacturing and grocery retailing industries that have long-opposed consumer labeling disclosures. The letter states: “We do not believe that the interests of producers or consumers can be served by granting to the opponents of COOL the exclusive right to decide whether or not to affix voluntary COOL labels.”
The next phase of the WTO COOL dispute is expected to take up to six months and will consider the extent to which a simple consumer label has prevented Canada and Mexico from exporting cattle and hogs to the United States. Cattle imports are now higher than when COOL went into effect and hog imports are rapidly rising, severely undercutting the contention that COOL is a trade barrier.
“COOL is extremely important to our organizations and to the American public. We oppose any legislation that would undermine any portion of the COOL law, whether by outright COOL repeal or by converting the mandatory COOL law to a voluntary program,” the coalition letter states. “We urge Congress to stand up for America’s consumers, farmers and ranchers by rejecting any effort to unilaterally repeal or weaken a popular food label even before the WTO process has concluded.”
Bill Bullard, R-CALF USA: (406) 252-2516, billbullard(at)r-calfusa(dot)com
Kate Fried, Food & Water Watch: (202) 683-4905, kfried(at)fwwatch(dot)org
Kevin Dowling, Western Organization of Resource Councils: (406) 252-9672, kdowling(at)worc(dot)org
Food & Water Watch champions healthy food and clean water for all. We stand up to corporations that put profits before people, and advocate for a democracy that improves people’s lives and protects our environment.