WASHINGTON — A meat labeling law repealed three years ago may be making a comeback as some lawmakers call for it to be added to the proposed trade pact designed to replace the 1994 North American Free Trade Agreement.
The country-of-origin labeling requirement, known as COOL, called for labels on beef and pork products to show where an animal was born, raised and slaughtered.
Canada and Mexico successfully challenged the law at the World Trade Organization and subsequently threatened in 2015 to impose a combined $1.1 billion in annual retaliatory duties if the U.S. kept the requirement. They said the labeling discouraged U.S. meatpackers from buying their livestock.
Lawmakers of both parties who had opposed the mandatory labeling cited the tariff threat and got repeal language into the fiscal 2016 omnibus spending package.
Now some supporters see the proposed United States-Mexico-Canada agreement as a long-shot vehicle for reviving COOL.
Twenty-seven House freshmen Democrats included the resurrection of COOL among several must-do USMCA revisions in a June 25 letter to Trade Representative Robert Lighthizer. They said the House should not vote on USMCA implementing legislation until the administration also includes strong enforcement provisions on labor and environment in the trade agreement.
The lawmakers also want the removal of provisions setting a 10-year monopoly on pricing for biologic medications and allowing the use of private arbitration panels by U.S. oil and gas companies in disputes with Mexico.
“Mexico and Canada already have used trade rules to undermine the food labeling that America’s farmers and ranchers support and the transparency that consumers demand. A final NAFTA package must restore the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) passed by Congress and affirmed by U.S. courts,” the letter said.
Austin Laufersweiler, spokesman for Rep. Andy Levin, one of the letter’s organizers, said the labeling provision was included “because it benefits workers, who are at the heart of the protections the freshmen are trying to have included.”
The most vocal supporters of the labeling were the National Farmers Union and Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund United Stockgrowers of America, whose members were in direct competition with Canadians for sales to slaughterhouses along the U.S-Canada border. They said consumers wanted to know the source of the meat they buy and would be inclined to choose U.S. products. The United Food and Commercial Workers union also backed the labeling requirement.
The North American Meat Institute, which represents U.S. meat and poultry packers and processors, fought the requirement as a costly business regulation.
Not surprisingly, Canada is cool to the idea of a return of the labeling requirement.
“While Canada respects that shoppers should be able to make informed decisions about the food they buy, mandatory COOL measures would place an undue burden on Canadian and American livestock supply chains, hurting producers on both sides of the border,” a spokesperson for the Canadian embassy in Washington said an email that noted Canada retains the authority impose duties on a range of goods.
In 2015, the WTO granted Canada the power to impose up to $781 million in duties at the exchange rate then.
“Canada has been very clear that we believe the USMCA is a good agreement that will benefit all three countries, and we are moving forward with domestic ratification procedures,” the spokesperson wrote.
Canada began the WTO challenge in 2009 and Mexico joined later.
The WTO said the labeling requirement led potential U.S. buyers of Canadian or Mexican cattle and hogs to offer lower prices or opt for U.S. animals to avoid additional costs. Meatpackers said they incurred additional costs in paperwork to track products from the imported animals and in keeping those products segregated from meat products from domestically raised livestock.
After the final WTO decision, Congress ended mandatory labeling for certain cuts of beef and pork as well as ground beef and ground pork. The U.S. kept mandatory labeling requirements for chicken, lamb, goat, farm-raised and wild-caught fish and shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and ginseng.