The World Trade Organization (WTO) required the USDA to improve its country-of-origin labeling law after a challenge was brought by Canada and Mexico. The proposed rule has already received threats of retaliation measures from the two, however supporters of COOL said those threats are overstated and stand behind the proposed rule.
USDA has until May 23 to issue a final rule, and Roger Johnson, National Farmers Union president expects the agency to meet that deadline. The comment period is already closed, and because the rule "isn't very complicated and very straightforward," Johnson expects the comments are not going to be that difficult to analyze either.
Groups such as the National Cattlemen's Beef Association and National Pork Producers Council remain opposed to the rule, saying it won't pass the sniff test of WTO.
Jon Wooster, president of U.S. Cattlemen's Association, said USDA made the new COOL labeling stronger and more meaningful for consumers. The change no longer allows for comingling of U.S. meat products with that of other countries without being labeled as such. It also requires the label to clarify where it is born, raised and slaughtered.
Earlier this spring in a visit to Washington, D.C., Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said that Canada was considering up to $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs if the U.S. moves forward with the proposed COOL rule. Mexico too has threated to retaliate.
Wooster noted though that any retaliation is "not going to happen overnight and if indeed it gets to that point, it will take months and months."
He explained that the WTO dispute process will require several consultations and panel reviews and then approval of the trade sanctions.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said this rule change was the first time the U.S. has ever complied with a WTO ruling by actually improving the information that will be provided to consumers.
Wallach added that how the WTO, Mexico and Canada react to the rule will be very "telling." For Mexico and Canada, who each are involved in the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations, it's "hardly a way to get a good agreement," she said.
If the WTO were to take the side of the two countries, Wallach noted that it would "undermine the very shaky legitimacy of the WTO" because if the rule is struck down it is denying consumers basic information.
"If the WTO is not going to accept a USDA proposal that on the merits actually complies with the ruling, and basically takes the side of the packer, it will be extremely revealing on the political perspective," Wallach added.
Patty Lovera, assistant director, Food & Water Watch, explained that many label claims are unregulated. Because COOL is law, it is standardized and "means something" and with the technical change becomes even more accurate for consumers. She said there is a benefit to having this rule, rather than a "marketing free-for-all" such as in other labels.
Johnson noted that COOL was passed as part of the 2002 Farm Bill and 2008 Farm Bill, and in 2008 had enough votes to override President George W. Bush's veto. He doesn't expect Congress to take this issue up again.
"This would make an already difficult farm bill more controversial if they take up country-of-origin labeling if they undo it," Johnson said.