Senators split on country-of-origin labeling

Melissa Nann Burke
Detroit News Washington Bureau

Washington — A majority of the Senate Agriculture panel supports a new bill to repeal mandatory country-of-origin beef and pork labeling requirements in favor of a voluntary “Product of the U.S.” labels for domestic meat, according to the bill’s sponsors.

Sens. Debbie Stabenow, D-Lansing, and John Hoeven, R-North Dakota, took to the Senate floor Monday to urge their colleagues to take up the legislation before lawmakers depart for their August recess.

“Anyone who’s watched this over the years knows that both sides have become very entrenched, and we understand that. Our approach is now to say, we agree with the House,” said Stabenow, referring to a House-passed bill to repeal the mandatory labeling.

“However, we need to be sure that, on behalf of American consumers and American farmers and processors, that we give them a tool – a voluntary tool – that they may use if they wish to do that.”

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

Canada and Mexico have strongly objected to the U.S. country-of-origin rule as discriminating against their livestock in violation of trade agreements.

The World Trade Organization in May again sided with Mexico and Canada in the dispute, leading Canada to pursue retaliatory tariffs totaling $2.47 billion on a variety of products imported from the States.

Hoeven and Stabenow, ranking Democrat on the Agriculture Committee, say their bill would comply with the WTO findings by removing certain meat products from the mandatory labeling program.

They say the voluntary program for beef and pork would also comply with global trade rules and would be similar to voluntary “Product of Canada” labels in use by Canada.

“At the end of the day, to get this done, to avoid any countervailing duty or tariffs under the WTO ruling, we need to repeal the mandatory COOL,” Hoeven said.

“And we put in place the voluntary COOL, which we need to do to get bipartisan support in the Senate and the House and pass the legislation.”

Canada made it clear it isn’t a fan of the new Stabenow-Hoeven bill.

Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz said Stabenow's “COOL 2.0” would continue to “undermine” integrated North American supply chains and continue the “segregation of and discrimination against” Canadian cattle and hogs.

“The only acceptable outcome remains for the United States to repeal COOL or face $3 billion in annual retaliation,” Ritz said in a statement.

Noting Canada’s response, Agriculture Committee Chair Pat Roberts, R-Kansas, has called for a “clean” repeal of the mandatory labeling. He added an amendment to repeal the mandatory labeling program to the six-year highway bill under consideration in the Senate.

“It doesn’t matter if you support COOL or oppose COOL. You cannot ignore the fact that retaliation is imminent, and we must avoid it,” Roberts said on the floor last week.

In her floor speech Monday, Stabenow noted that several senators who now oppose her voluntary label measure pressed for a bill called the Meat Promotion Act in 2005, which would have created voluntary labeling for meat.

She called out the Republican senators by name, including Roberts, John Cornyn of Texas, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Lamar Alexander of Tennessee.

“All of (them) were arguing we should have a voluntary program, not a mandatory program. Now, here we are. You would think this would be easy. You would think this would be a slam dunk,” she said.

“At the time, they thought this was a smart way to promote U.S. meat products while also supporting international trade. The same people who are now working against us.”

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