WASHINGTON – The House voted Wednesday to repeal country of origin labeling laws meant to allow consumers to know where animals in beef, poultry and pork products were born, raised and slaughtered.
The rules led to protests to the World Trade Organization (WTO) from Canada and Mexico, which feared discrimination. The meatpacking industry, including Minnesota-based Cargill and Hormel, also opposed the rules, saying they imposed expensive, unnecessary record-keeping requirements and violated companies’ right of free speech.
American farmers and consumer advocates, including some in Minnesota, argued that Americans had the right to know where their food came from and should be able to “buy American” if they wanted to.
The WTO ruled against the U.S. and said both Canada and Mexico could apply retaliatory tariffs to U.S. products shipped to the two countries.
Canada and Mexico recently said they intended to levy $3 billion in penalties on U.S. products shipped to their countries.
The WTO has to approve that amount and some research disputes that the labeling caused anywhere near that much damage. But the repeal of labeling rules, if passed by the Senate and signed by President Obama, will make a determination of damages moot.
Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., led opposition to the repeal of the labeling rule known by the acronym COOL.
Peterson called repeal “premature.”
“The Canadian system puts U.S. products at a disadvantage every day,” Peterson told House colleagues. “Yet the Canadians take issue when we try to give consumers additional information on where their meat comes from, claiming it disadvantages Canadian producers.
“Additionally, consumers are demanding more and more information about where their food comes from and how it is produced. The WTO has repeatedly ruled that COOL is a legitimate goal. Rather than abandon our efforts to provide consumers with this information, we should be able to find a reasonable solution without WTO sanction.”
Rep. Rick Nolan, D-Minn., joined Peterson in speaking against repeal.
Country of origin labeling provided “important consumer and farmer protection,” Nolan said.
Minnesota’s other Democratic representatives - Tim Walz, Betty McCollum and Keith Ellison - joined Nolan and Peterson in voting against repeal.
Minnesota Republicans John Kline, Erik Paulsen and Tom Emmer voted with the majority in a 300-131 bipartisan decision to avoid the threat of tariffs on a variety of U.S. exports by not making beef, pork and poultry packers apply the born, raised and slaughtered labels.
Supporters of repeal maintained that the labeling rule was really a marketing measure, not a safety measure, and that existing U.S. Department of Agriculture ratings allowed buyers to judge both safety and quality.
The meat packing industry sued to kill the rules, but lost in federal court.
Now, mandatory labeling may go away anyway.