WASHINGTON – New labeling rules that require certain fresh meat products to disclose their country of origin are losing steam in Washington.
The turnabout is being cheered by big agricultural companies like Minnesota-based Cargill Inc. but are a setback for cattle producers and pig farmers who had hoped the new labels would spur a “buy American” movement.
The latest blow against the labeling movement came Wednesday when a U.S. House agriculture panel voted to repeal country-of-origin labeling rules that made beef, pork and chicken producers and processors list where the animals used in their products were born, raised and slaughtered.
The vote came two days after the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled that the labeling rules economically injured meat producers in Canada and Mexico. The ruling cleared the way to retaliatory tariffs against U.S. products exported to the two countries.
Advocates for farmers say the rules are aimed at providing consumers with more information to help shape buying decisions.
“Our members want to give people a choice,” Minnesota Farmers Union President Doug Peterson told the Star Tribune.
At the same time, a repeal would be a win for companies like Cargill, which had opposed the rules through its leadership role in the American Meat Institute. The institute sued unsuccessfully to stop application of the rules arguing that forcing companies to keep track of where animals were born, raised and slaughtered was regulatory overreach.
The WTO ruling against so-called COOL requirements allowed the industry’s corporate giants to prevail anyway.
“We think this matter shows the importance of complying with trade obligations and World Trade Organization rulings,” Cargill spokesman Mark Klein said in a statement about the WTO decision. Cargill did not respond to a Star Tribune question about its support of the House repeal bill.
In a statement issued after the WTO ruling, Meat Institute President Barry Carpenter said, “Any action other than repeal invites retaliation from Canada and Mexico that could cost the U.S. economy billions of dollars. We look forward to working with Congress to repeal COOL once and for all, so that the United States can comply with its trade obligations, avoid unnecessary retaliation against our products and restore our strong relationships with important trading partners.”
Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, Tim Walz and Rick Nolan voted against the repeal, which passed by a 38-6 margin. The matter now goes to the House floor, where it is expected to pass in the Republican-controlled chamber.
Peterson, the ranking minority member of the agriculture panel, called the action premature.
“I talked to the Europeans yesterday. They have mandatory labeling and they just added born, reared and slaughtered to the regime,” Peterson told the Star Tribune in an interview.
Peterson said the U.S. is acting too fast in the wake of the WTO ruling and that it should wait to see a WTO calculation of the economic injury labeling caused to Canada and Mexico, especially since the European Union is heading “in the opposite direction.”
Most of his committee colleagues, including many Democrats, disagreed.
“We know we face sanctions that could have effects in the billions of dollars,” committee Chairman Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, told the committee. “This bill before us is a targeted response to the WTO decision that removes uncertainty, provides stability and brings us back into compliance.”