Country of Origin labeling
July 24, 2015
The undersigned organizations representing consumers and livestock producers respectfully urge you to reject efforts to repeal the mandatory Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL) law and any attempts to convert the COOL law into a voluntary program. Instead, we urge you to defend consumers’ right to know where their food comes from and the ability of farmers and ranchers to proudly identify their livestock as born and raised in America.
Today, consumers want to know more about the food they are feeding their families and farmers want to share that information. The overwhelming majority of consumers and farmers support the current mandatory COOL labeling law, with more than nine out of ten Americans supporting COOL.
Although the World Trade Organization (WTO) Appellate Body has issued its decision on COOL, the United States has a sovereign right to allow the dispute process to proceed to its completion, which is months away, and then decide how and whether to implement the adverse ruling. Our organizations remain steadfast in opposing any efforts to undermine or weaken mandatory COOL, including outright repeal or by making COOL a voluntary program.
It is premature for Congress to unilaterally surrender to saber-rattling from our trading partners in the midst of a long-standing dispute. COOL opponents have highlighted Mexico and Canada’s threats of retaliation as if their aspiration to seek billions of dollars in penalties were already approved by the WTO. But these unapproved, unrealistically high retaliation claims are merely aggressive litigation tactics designed to frighten the United States — a standard practice in WTO disputes. Congress should not fall for it.
The WTO can only authorize penalties based on the extent to which COOL caused a reduction in the volume and price of livestock imports. But the economic recession was the driving factor behind declining livestock imports, not the application of a simple label. Cattle imports are higher today than when COOL went into effect and hog imports are rapidly rebounding, even with COOL in place. This straightforward logic is buttressed by a recent economic report from Auburn University that demonstrates that COOL has not impacted the livestock trade and that any harm to our trading partners has in fact been negligible at most.
Moreover, retaliation is only relevant if the United States, Canada and Mexico cannot reach an agreement after the parties have undergone the full WTO arbitration process. In past WTO disputes that the United States has lost, the United States has waited for the process to conclude and then has successfully avoided WTO-authorized trade sanctions by negotiating a settlement with the other country in the dispute. Despite this successful track record, the House passed a measure to repeal COOL for beef, pork, ground meats and chicken in June – the first time Congress has acted to change a U.S. law before the completion of a WTO dispute process.
Additionally, the House-passed COOL repeal legislation is particularly extreme in that it would roll back commonsense labels that the WTO actually supported or that never were raised in the WTO dispute. The legislation would repeal COOL for ground beef and ground pork as well as for chicken, but the WTO explicitly ruled that the COOL label on ground meat was WTO-legal, and the dispute never addressed chicken or other covered commodities (including seafood, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, goat, venison and some nuts).
Voluntary COOL labeling is no solution to the WTO dispute: Meatpackers won’t use it, consumers won’t see it, farmers and ranchers won’t benefit from it and Canada and Mexico have already bluntly rejected this so-called compromise. Voluntary COOL is indistinguishable from repealing COOL, as meatpacking companies would be permitted to use voluntary COOL labels even if mandatory COOL were repealed under the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Processed Verified Program.
Moreover, the meatpackers are unlikely to employ voluntary COOL labels because they do not believe that consumers have a right to know where their meat products came from. The meatpacking industry sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture to block mandatory COOL because the meatpackers believed they had a constitutional free speech right to conceal the origin of the meat they sell to consumers, a contention that was rejected repeatedly by the federal courts.
That was the historical experience with voluntary COOL from 2002 to 2009, before mandatory COOL finally was implemented. Although mandatory COOL was passed in the 2002 Farm Bill, the appropriators blocked its implementation and only allowed a voluntary COOL program that reserved the USA label for meat derived from livestock exclusively born, raised and slaughtered in the United States — identical to the standard in the recently proposed voluntary COOL so-called compromise. Few if any meat products were ever labeled under those voluntary regimes for the simple reason that neither packers nor most major retailers want to provide origin information to their customers.
Neither consumers nor livestock producers believe that we can allow the meatpacking, food processing and grocery retail industries to decide what to disclose to consumers. These food industries have long resisted providing basic information on food labels. We do not believe that the interests of producers or consumers can be served by granting to the opponents of COOL the exclusive right to decide whether or not to affix voluntary COOL labels.
COOL is extremely important to our organizations and to the American public. We oppose any legislation that would undermine any portion of the COOL law, whether by outright COOL repeal or by converting the mandatory COOL law to a voluntary program. We urge Congress to stand up for America’s consumers, farmers and ranchers by rejecting any effort to unilaterally repeal or weaken a popular food label even before the WTO process has concluded. Thank you for your consideration of this request.
Food & Water Watch
PCC Natural Markets