(file photo)


It appears the US government is not going to be making any changes to its country of origin meat labelling rules through a new farm bill.

After negotiating for the last two and half months, leaders from both the House and Senate announced on Monday that they had arrived at a deal for a farm bill that does not touch the labelling rules. Both houses are expected to vote on the bill Wednesday.

It's a major blow for the Canadian government and livestock industries, which have been fighting country of origin labelling (COOL) since it was implemented in 2008. They say the legislation is costing the Canadian cattle and hog sectors $1 billion per year.

The National Cattlemen's Beef Association and other US meat industry groups opposed to COOL are making a last ditch effort to have the entire farm bill defeated.

"They're working to try to have it voted down. We're not holding our breath that that's going to happen. That would be great, but really I think we're on the track to the WTO," says John Masswohl, director of government and international relations with the Canadian Cattlemen's Association.

Federal minister Gerry Ritz was at the annual Beef Congress in Camrose last week. He told those assembled that Canada is ready to take action.  "We have a WTO hearing coming up next month, February 18th and 19th where oral arguments will be heard, so as I said things are heating up that file. We continue to remind my colleague Tom Vilsack that Canada is poised to implement retaliatory measures if that's what it takes and that's what they force us to do to stand up with our industry against this unfair trade barrier."

In 2012, the World Trade Organization ruled in Canada and Mexico's favour, saying that COOL discriminates against foreign livestock and is inconsistent with the Americans' trade obligations. Another round of hearings to decide whether the US has complied with that original ruling will be held February 18th and 19th. This time around, if the panel rules in Canada's favour again, Ottawa would have the option of implementing retaliatory tariffs on US imports. In an effort to convince US lawmakers to repeal COOL, the Canadian government published a list of US products that would be impacted by these retaliatory measures last summer.

"We'll have to wait a few months for the WTO to issue its ruling, then the appeal and so on, so it will probably be the first half of 2015 before Canada would be in a position to impose retaliatory tariffs on US products," says Masswohl.

In the meantime, he says COOL will continue to hurt the meat industries in both Canada and the US.

"It wouldn't surprise me at all if in the next month or two there's going to be a major US packing company that closes a fairly large-sized facility - at least one, maybe two. That's what puzzled us about the views in Washington. We know they don't care that much about us, but we thought they would want to save American jobs," says Masswohl.

Repealing COOL outside of the farm bill will likely be much more difficult, he adds.

"They would have to pass legislation, and the view was that passing a piece of stand-alone legislation is extremely difficult, so that's why you want to attach it to a piece of legislation that is going to pass anyway," explains Masswohl. "We're going to have to create a motivation for Congressmen and Senators to want to do that. The only motivation I can see is that they lose a lot of jobs down there, they lose a lot of trade with Canada and Mexico. So we're going to have to follow the process that puts those tariffs in and creates that scenario for them."