Stabenow calls for voluntary origin labels for meat

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — Mandatory country-of-origin beef and pork labeling requirements would be dropped in favor of voluntary “Product of the U.S.” labels for domestic meat under a proposal by U.S. Sen. Debbie Stabenow, ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Committee.

Stabenow’s proposal conflicts with majority Republicans’ preference to repeal the labeling rule and avoid World Trade Organization-backed Canadian sanctions against U.S. products because the rule violates trade agreements.

Stabenow, D-Lansing, said she hopes the simple approach “will help us find a solution that benefits American consumers and American agriculture, while also finding a pathway forward between the United States and our neighbors to the north and south.”

She was referring to Canada and Mexico, which strongly object to the U.S. country-of-origin, or COOL, rule as discriminating against their livestock in violation of trade agreements.

Last month, the World Trade Organization agreed with the two countries in the dispute, leading Canada to pursue retaliatory tariffs totaling $2.47 billion on a variety of products imported from the States as soon as late summer.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, who chairs the Agriculture Committee, said at a recent hearing that repealing the labeling rule is the “surest way to protect the U.S. economy.”

He highlighted a letter to the committee from Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz, who appeared to reject Stabenow’s idea.

Ritz said approaches such as a “legislated ‘voluntary’ label or generic label are not satisfactory outcomes for Canada” and that Canada would continue its retaliatory course.

Mexico sent a letter also saying that repeal is the only recourse.

The Republican-controlled U.S. House in June voted to repeal the COOL labeling rule. In response to Stabenow’s proposal, House Agriculture Committee Chairman K. Michael Conaway said conversations about a voluntary program “must be preceded by a full repeal of COOL, as we have an obligation to our trading partners to come into compliance.”

Stabenow says the voluntary labels for beef and pork comply with global trade rules and would be similar to voluntary labels authorized by Canada. She also emphasized her chamber’s need to act with that threat hanging over the farming and manufacturing sectors.

Since 2009, the mandatory labels on poultry, beef, pork and other meat products have informed consumers of where the animals were raised and slaughtered.

Stabenow described the labeling rule as a “landmark law” enabling consumers to know where their food comes from.

However, Roberts noted the U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the labeling has cost the U.S> beef, pork and chicken sectors about $1.8 billion.

“Furthermore, there have been no measurable increases in consumer demand to offset the losses inflicted on the livestock and meat sectors,” Roberts said at the hearing.

“These costs are in addition of the strain that our policies have put on our relationships with two of our closest trading partners, Canada and Mexico.

“That by itself is cause for concern.”

Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minnesota, asked how Canada could object to a voluntary labeling option, since it has one itself.

“Its policy is not the same as our having it as part of our statute, which otherwise is mandatory.

“The simplest resolution is to repeal (the rule) and then develop a voluntary program,” said Barry Carpenter, CEO of the North American Meat Institute.

“To try to put something quasi-voluntary into something that’s perceived and in reality, from the Canadians’ perspective, a mandatory program, I think puts us at great risk.”

Late last month, the United States indicated it would seek arbitration at the WTO on the amount of damages caused by the labeling rule.

In response, Ritz, the Canadian minister of agriculture, accused the United States of attempting to prolong the process.

“The U.S. is out of options, and retaliation cannot be avoided by drawing out this process,” Ritz said in a statement.

“Our government’s position remains unchanged. The only way for the United States to avoid billions in retaliation by late summer is to ensure legislation repealing COOL passes the Senate and is signed by the president.”

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