American Meat Institute (AMI), Canadian Minister for International Trade, Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), Food & Water Watch, Ministry of Economy: Mexico, National Farmers Union (NFU), North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), Secretaría de Economía, The NAFTA Office of Mexico in Canada, U.S. Court of Appeals, U.S. Department of Agriculture, World Trade Organization (WTO)
Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) is not a food safety issue. Except when it is.
The law requires that much of our food be labeled with its source country, but the requirement that meat be labeled with the specific country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered is currently an issue at the World Trade Organization (WTO) and in the U.S. court system.
Below the surface of those proceedings is the question of whether COOL involves food safety. If it does, it would be easier for the government to make it “Compelled speech” under the U.S. Constitution, which protects commercial speech unless a substantial public interest is involved.
But the American Meat Institute (AMI) and other packer and processing groups that have filed a lawsuit to repeal COOL are emphasizing the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s own statement that the program “is neither a food safety or traceability program but rather a consumer information program.”
“The Government does not contend that COOL serves a health or safety interest, and that should be determinative of the matter,” wrote the groups’ attorneys in a letter filed with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January.
The National Farmers Union (NFU) and other Defendant-Intervenors in the case responded with their own letter, stating that just because COOL is not a USDA tool for ensuring the safety of the food system, “does not imply it cannot also serve a safety interest.”
COOL provides information that consumers have a right to know before making a purchase, says NFU vice president of government relations Chandler Goule. For example, he says, “knowing the origin of the beef in the supermarket can be important if a common importer has an outbreak of Bovine Spongiform Encephalopathy (BSE).”
“Every country has different production practices and different production standards,” he says. “I deliberately will avoid fish and seafood products from Vietnam. I’ve been there, and I simply do not think they have the food safety standards needed for me to feel comfortable purchasing that product.”
“I know COOL is not a food safety label, but because of the information I already know, I can make an informed decision on what products I want to purchase,” Goule adds.
A survey conducted by the Consumer Federation of America that found 90 percent of Americans favored requiring a label with the country of origin on meat, and 87 percent favored requiring where the animal was born, raised and processed.
National Cattlemen’s Beef Association president Scott George disagrees that COOL is something consumers actually want. In a press conference about COOL and the farm bill, he cited a Kansas State University finding that most consumers don’t actually look at country-of-origin labels when deciding which products to purchase.
“If the court determines that COOL has food safety implications,” says Patrick Woodall, Food & Water Watch’s research director, “it will weigh these public health benefits more favorably even if the labels purportedly compel some commercial speech.”
The latest version of COOL regulations has been in effect since May 2013. A challenge to the current rule is currently before the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. The court heard oral arguments last Jan. (2014). On 26 March 2014, the Chair of the compliance panel informed the Dispute Settlement Body (DSB) that the compliance panel expects to issue its final report to the parties towards the end of July 2014, in accordance with the timetable adopted after consultation with the parties.
And now a word of warning issued to the US by
Press Release: June 7, 2013
On July 23, 2012, the WTO ruled that US Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements which affect Mexican exports of cattle are discriminatory and contrary to WTO principles. The COOL measure distorts practices that have been prevalent for years in Mexico-US trade in the meat sector, and the WTO gave the United States ten months to modify these rules, a period which expired last May 23rd.
The WTO concluded that the requirement for meat products to use a label identifying if the product derives from cattle born in Mexico, has forced United States meat processors to segregate Mexican cattle from US cattle, resulting in high costs transferred to Mexican producers and encouraging the exclusive use of domestic livestock for the production of meat products.
On March 8th, 2013, the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) issued a draft proposal to amend the COOL provisions, allegedly to comply with the WTO decision. Mexico submitted comments to the United States opposing the adoption of the proposed rule. Nevertheless, on May 23, at the conclusion of the ten month period provided by the WTO, USDA confirmed the proposed rule as final.
The new COOL rule is even more restrictive than the one originally challenged in the WTO and will create even more severe trade distortions. Instead of eliminating the discriminatory effects, it preserves the incentives not to acquire imported cattle, which will continue to affect Mexican exports.
Through a joint communication, the Canadian Minister for International Trade, Edward Fast, and the Secretary of Economy, Ildefonso Guajardo, expressed to the United States government their concerns that the new proposed rule was contrary to the WTO recommendations.
The Mexican government is currently conducting consultations with its industry to
evaluate the impact that will be caused by the new rule and will challenge it, in coordination with Canada, in the relevant WTO bodies, in order to show that the United States has not complied with the organization’s ruling.
Once this is confirmed by the WTO, Mexico will be in a position to impose trade sanctions on the United States, for which it will consider suspending benefits across a wide variety of sectors, including fruits and vegetables, juices, meat products, dairy products, machinery, furniture and appliances, among others.
Mexico will continue to defend the interests of its national livestock sector before the WTO. At the same time, Mexico remains open to exploring a solution with the United States that would be in full compliance with its international obligations.
(You can follow results of dispute here: WTO | dispute settlement – the disputes – DS384, which is expected to be released July 2014)