By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Reactions to the House Agriculture Committee's approval Wednesday of a bill to repeal country-of-origin labeling for beef, pork and chicken, ranged from praise to accusations of "a gross overreach of congressional authority."
The bill, H.R. 2393, was written in reaction to a ruling by the World Trade Organization on Monday that the U.S. country-of-origin labeling program for beef and pork violated U.S. trade obligations because it discriminated against Canadian and Mexican producers. Canada and Mexico have threatened to retaliate against U.S. products if the program continues.
One of the bill's co-sponsors, Rep. Steve King, R-Iowa, noted that he had supported labeling, but believed "there was a way for packers to accommodate the situation." King noted that some packers said they would not accept Canadian pigs, while others said they would only accept them on Mondays.
Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif., another bill co-sponsor, emphasized that it is important to avoid retaliation because Canada has threatened to increase tariffs on California wine.
"This no longer about labeling, it is about potential harsh retaliation," Costa said.
House Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin Peterson, D-Minn., who voted against the bill, acknowledged that he "thought the language in the 2008 farm bill was something we could all live with, but that wasn't the case." Still, he said, "Repealing COOL is premature."
"Of course no one wants to see retaliation, but it's important to point out that there are still several steps that have to occur before that would take place," Peterson continued.
"Given what we have seen in the past -- it took 15 months for the arbitration panel to issue a ruling in the U.S.-Brazil cotton case -- it's unlikely the panel will rule on COOL retaliation within their 60-day window. I think we should take a serious look at the mandatory labeling requirements that are in place in more than 60 other countries," Peterson said.
"EU [European Union] labeling rules, for example, require indication of the country of birth, fattening and slaughter. If a cow is born, raised, and slaughtered in the same country, then that is the country of origin. Imported beef can be labeled as 'non-EU' if information is not available. For meats originating from countries where information about the animal may be unknown, the system allows for alternative claims of origin," Peterson said.
Peterson added, "I don't think this is the best way to avoid retaliation and, quite frankly, I don't think the Senate will be able to pass a repeal. I would suggest that we instead take some time to thoughtfully consider our next steps."
The North American Meat Institute, which represents the packers, praised the vote and urged Congress to repeal the program.
"The U.S. made a promise to live up to its WTO obligations," said NAMI President and CEO Barry Carpenter. "We have not kept that promise and WTO panels have told us so four times. It's time we listen. Today's action is the first step towards full repeal and can help the United States avoid the retaliatory tariffs promised by Canada and Mexico."
The United States Cattlemen's Association, which has favored labeling, called the legislation "a gross overreach of congressional authority."
"Not only does the proposed legislation attempt to circumvent an ongoing case at the World Trade Organization, regarding COOL, it also extends the criteria by which to repeal COOL," said USCA President Danni Beer.
"The addition of chicken to the list of products to be affected by the repeal is disturbing since chicken was not a part of the original WTO case filed by Canada and Mexico against COOL," Beer noted,
"Opponents of COOL are encouraging Congress to limit consumer information and are exploiting a ruling by the WTO before the international trade process has been completed," she said. "Congress does not need to insert itself until statutory action is necessary."
"For USCA, the centerpiece of COOL has been, and always will be, the consumers' right to information about how and where their food is produced and U. S. ranchers' right to differentiate their product from that of a generic commodity in which the identity of U.S. beef would be lost forever," Beer said.
National Chicken Council President Michael Brown said the chicken industry had asked to be included in the repeal of labeling because industry leaders believed that Canada and Mexico might retaliate against U.S. chicken.
"While we cannot speak on behalf of Canada and Mexico as to why they limited their WTO appeal on COOL to pork and beef, we are keenly aware that chicken was near the top of the list for retaliation by both countries," Brown said.
"NCC supports legislative action that will allow U.S. laws and regulations pertaining to meat and poultry to be compliant with our international trade obligations."
Brown also said potential imports of Chinese chicken had nothing to do with the decision, although he added that if China can meet U.S. standards it should be allowed to export to the United States.
"We don't expect any chicken to be imported from China. More than 99% of the chicken we eat in the U.S. is hatched, raised and processed here," NCC spokesman Tom Super added in an email.
Brown declined to comment on why the chicken industry had asked to be included in the labeling program some years ago, noting he was not working for NCC at that time.
The House action and the WTO decision will also apparently pave the way for labeling of venison.
The House bill specifically continues labeling for lamb and venison, and labeling those products is not considered to be a problem because the animals are raised and slaughtered within the same country.
Section 12104 of the 2014 farm bill added venison to the list of commodities to be labeled, but USDA has not required them or listed venison as a covered product.
"That will require rulemaking, which we were waiting to do because of the WTO litigation," Agricultural Marketing Service Administrator Anne Alonzo said in an email.
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