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Canada protests while U.S. consumer groups celebrate revised meat labelling policy

Image: Andrew Filer/Flickr

The United States government has revised its Country of Origin Labelling program, or COOL, ostensibly to bring it in line with a World Trade Organization decision in 2011 (upheld at the appeal stage in 2012) that the meat labelling rules were too onerous and violated the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT). U.S. consumer groups immediately celebrated the government's "sensible steps to strengthen COOL requirements for meat," but the Canadian government just as quickly denounced them as even more discriminatory against Canadian meat than before the WTO decision.

According to the U.S. government, under the COOL program, "retailers must provide their customers with information about the origin of various food products, including fruits, vegetables, fish and shellfish and meats." The USDA says this mandatory requirement is to "help consumers make informed purchasing decisions about the food they buy."

Makes sense to me. I've always wondered where all that fish comes from in the grocery story, the stuff just sitting there on the ice for god knows how long. Alas, there are no labels in Canada.

But a policy victory for U.S. consumers was portrayed as an attack on non-U.S. meat producers by the Canadian and Mexican governments in their joint WTO cases against COOL. Canada argued that COOL involved a "lengthy labelling and tracking system with an unnecessary paperwork burden and additional red tape." The government suggested a voluntary labelling scheme, or that COOL be changed so it reflected "standards suggested by the Codex Alimentarius, which is an international food standards body at which numerous international food companies play a central role," according to Public Citizen.

The WTO agreed with Canada and Mexico that COOL was not cool. This is kind of funny, since we are told again and again by free traders that the consumer is the most important actor in international trade. They are supposed to get the best product for the best price and to have the best possible information to make their consumer decisions -- producers be damned! (At least that's what they say about milk farmers.) Here is a clear case of consumer be damned, though the impact on Canadian meat producers was significant, according to industry and government.

"When the United States implemented COOL in 2008, the impact on the Canadian livestock industry was immediately negative," says a Canadian government press release last summer. "Between 2008 and 2009, exports to the United States of Canadian feeder cattle declined 49 percent and exports of slaughter hogs declined 58 percent. COOL led to the disintegration of the North American supply chain, created unpredictability in the market and imposed additional costs on producers on both sides of the border."

The revised COOL regulations, announced March 8 by the USDA, "would modify the labeling provisions for muscle cut covered commodities to require the origin designations to include information about where each of the production steps (i.e., born, raised, slaughtered) occurred and would remove the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts."

Food and Water Watch issued the following statement about the revision to COOL:

"The proposed changes eliminate the vague and misleading 'mixed origin' country of origin label for meat and ensures that each cut of meat clearly displays each stage of production (where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered) on the label. This commonsense approach improves the usefulness of the information consumers receive from the label and allows livestock producers to distinguish their products in the marketplace.

"Improving the integrity of country of origin labels and providing clear, straightforward information also addresses concerns brought in a World Trade Organization challenge to the current rules. We urge the USDA to finalize this proposed rule."

We don't buy mystery vegetables. I'm not sure why North Americans should accept mystery meat either.

Image: Andrew Filer/Flickr

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