WTO Backs Ruling Against U.S. Country-of-Origin Labeling

U.S. country-of-origin labeling provisions violate global trade law and unfairly curb agricultural commerce, World Trade Organization judges said as they upheld an earlier ruling backing Canada and Mexico.

Under U.S. law in force since March 2009, food processors must identify the nations from which cattle, hogs and some fresh produce originate. The legislation has its roots in the discovery of bovine spongiform encephalopathy, or mad cow disease, in a Canadian-bred animal in 2003.

Canada and Mexico said the provisions impose unjust costs on their exports, reducing their competitiveness. WTO judges agreed on Nov. 18 that beef and pork from Canada and Mexico were treated less favorably than the same U.S. products.

Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz praised today’s ruling, telling livestock producers and processors in Dundurn, Saskatchewan, that his government “has always stood with our cattle and hog producers in order to create a stronger and more profitable integrated North American livestock industry.”

Public Citizen, a Washington-based lobby, said the appellate report, which comes on the heels of rulings against U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labels and a U.S. ban on clove cigarettes, will only intensify public opposition to trade agreements.

Three Rulings

“These three rulings -- with the WTO slapping down safe hamburgers, Flipper and children’s smoking prevention policy -- make it increasingly clear to the public that the WTO is leading a race to the bottom in consumer protection,” Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said in an e-mailed statement.

U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk said he is “pleased” with the ruling as it affirms the right of the U.S. to “adopt labeling requirements that provide information to American consumers about the meat they buy.”

Mexico and Canada complained at the Geneva-based WTO in December 2008, challenging provisions of the U.S. Food, Conservation and Energy Act that impose mandatory country-of-origin labeling, known as COOL, for beef, pork, chicken, lamb and goat as well as some perishables sold by U.S. retailers.

Canada’s trade department has said U.S. processors are forced to segregate Canadian animals and meat, leading some operators to shun those products to avoid the extra costs. Canada and the U.S. traded C$37 billion ($36 billion) of agricultural goods in 2008.

COOL has caused many U.S. pork-processing companies to stop buying animals born in Canada and has cost the country’s pork industry millions of dollars, according to the Canadian Pork Council, a federation of nine provincial pork industry associations. The law costs the Canadian cattle industry C$400 million annually, the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association says.

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