By Spencer Chase
WASHINGTON, Oct. 23, 2014 – The National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association were joined by an environmental group and a trade watchdog in calling for the U.S. to appeal a World Trade Organization ruling that said provisions of the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule violated international trade regulations. The organizations rejected calls for Congress to repeal the COOL legislation altogether.
Officials from the groups, which included Food and Water Watch and Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, all agreed that appeal was a better route than repeal in a call with reporters on Thursday. The amended COOL rule calls for meat packages to be labeled with where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered. NFU President Roger Johnson called on USDA and the office of the U.S. Trade Representative to take the next step allowed by WTO rules and appeal the ruling.
“There are a number of options in front of us and it’s premature to talk about that, because the very next thing that we can and must do is to appeal this decision,” Johnson said. “As has been said before, undoubtedly, the result of that appeal almost certainly is going to be at least somewhat different than what the current decision is in front of us.”
Johnson, whose group has strongly supported COOL in the past, said groups calling for a repeal are getting ahead of the process, which he said still hasn’t fully played out. He feels the law is still in good legal standing, and an appeal could result in a favorable ruling for the U.S.
“It’s kind of foolish to be talking about repealing a law and denying consumers this information when we believe that there are strong legal standings for this law to begin with,” Johnson said. “There are a number of options available to resolve this dispute including step one — appealing.”
Also on the call was Danni Beer, president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association, who said critics of the law “need to let the entire WTO process play out.”
“What would Congress even go in and fix right now?” Beer asked, noting an appeal of a previous ruling had narrowed down some issues. “Let’s give a chance for USDA to address those things we need to.”
Patrick Woodall, research director at Food & Water Watch, said going straight for a full repeal would also affect COOL jurisdiction on products such as vegetables, seafood, and nuts.
“Repeal is a blunt instrument for a process that is not even near close to being finished,” Woodall said. “Suggesting that we should yank the whole law because of a dispute that has a narrowed result every time we go to the WTO is considerably premature.”
Johnson also reiterated his belief that any non-compliance within COOL could be fixed administratively by USDA officials, not through Congressional action.
“No, we don’t have to go back to Congress to get a fix for it. We can work through it in any number of different ways,” Johnson said. “I think this is very clear; we don’t need a legislative fix.”
On Monday, Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food Gerry Ritz said Canada would use any time allotted for a U.S. appeal to begin the process of implementing broad economic sanctions against U.S. products. Johnson called retaliatory talk “premature.”
“My advice is they ought to just calm down and sit back, because we are a long ways away from any point where the WTO might authorize retaliation,” Johnson said.
Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch, said if all rulings went against the U.S. – which she said is unlikely – and if the WTO stuck strictly to its timeline – which she said is unprecedented – economic sanctions could be authorized by August 2015 at the earliest. She said before sanctions can be authorized, the U.S. would have to lose rulings on a potential appeal, on potential sanctions themselves, and then on the amount of those potential sanctions. She added “the really clear outcome of this case is to settle,” in the event that the U.S. loses on all those potentialities.
Johnson said with the right fixes to the rule, the U.S. could very well win an appeal, making Canadian and Mexican retaliatory measures a moot point. He said the U.S. should fight for the consumer’s right to know where their food comes from and for the American producer’s pride in the beef they produce.
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