Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) is gone, but there’s a new push from American beef producers looking to bring it back.
“It’s still very much on our radar,” said Alberta Beef Producers President Melanie Wowk. “When COOL was first introduced in 2003, it was costing us about $ 600 million a year, so I think you could say that scares producers in this province. “
But six years ago, the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruled it discriminatory and said Canada could impose retaliatory tariffs of $ 1.1 billion if the United States continued to require mandatory country of origin labeling for beef and pork. Washington then repealed its labeling law, a move hailed by larger U.S. cattle breeding organizations such as the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which said it had hurt ranchers on both sides of the border.
But the fight rages on, with groups like R-CALF USA trying to bring COOL back, an effort that received slight encouragement from Tom Vilsack when he was confirmed as US Secretary of Agriculture.
“I’m absolutely ready to listen to anyone who has any idea on how we can get around or get to a point where the WTO doesn’t necessarily slap it, creating retaliatory effects on American agriculture,” said Vilsack, who held the same position in the administration of former President Barack Obama.
But while officials in the Canadian beef industry are keeping a close watch on these rumblings south of the border, so far they see nothing to worry about.
“This is something that we are working on in partnership with our counterparts in the United States, and the conversations there reflected the fact that if country of origin labeling were to come back, it would have to be compliant with the WTO, “said Fawn Jackson, director of policy and international affairs for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association.
Despite this, the conversation around mandatory COOL seems to reappear every few years. That’s, in part, because the country of origin labeling doesn’t look so bad until you dig a little deeper.
“Consumers want to know more about their food, and maybe this is one way to do it,” Jackson said. “But when you really dig into the intricacies of COOL, you really understand that the implications that mandatory labeling would have would be significantly negative for North American farmers and ranchers.”
This is because American and Canadian cattle need to be separated in processing plants with a lot of tracking paperwork. (The American Meat Institute put this cost at $ 2.5 billion per year.) When COOL was in effect, processors opted to buy American cattle instead, which made it more difficult for some little ones. American packers to stock up on livestock and brought prices down here.
“Half of our cattle go south, and when that happened it really reduced the packing capacity of Canadian cattle,” said Wowk, who operates a farm near Beauvallon.
“Prior to 2003, there were 16 processors in the United States that accepted Canadian cattle five to six days a week. When COOL arrived, that number dropped to just six processors, and five of them were only taking Canadian cattle once a week.
“So our numbers went down dramatically, which resulted in our exports going down, and it ended up costing us dearly. “
If the fight resumed, it would be led by the breeders association but financed by provincial levies.
“It cost us almost $ 4 million in legal fees for this COOL fight that we won in 2015,” Wowk said. “Alberta is the biggest (contributor) because we have the most cattle, so producers in Alberta have contributed over $ 2 million to this fight.
But Jackson doesn’t anticipate a rehearsal.
“I think it is understood that Canada won the case at the WTO and that we have kept our rights of retaliation, so I hope we do not have to go down this route again,” he said. she declared. “But the impact was significant when it was in place, so we will continue to monitor it and have discussions to avoid that.”
That said, there is a need to raise awareness of the benefits of international trade, especially in a post-pandemic and local world.
“We have to make sure that this is not something that only Canadians are aware of, but everyone in the world, especially after COVID-19,” Jackson said. “There was that interest in looking at local food systems, but we really have to remember that there are benefits to having a mix of local and international trade. “
But as a cattle producer, Wowk isn’t as convinced that mandatory country-of-origin labeling will stay on the shelf where it belongs.
“Never say never,” she said. “The United States is a big, powerful country with a lot of money and a lot of support. We are a small country. We don’t have the power they have. We are very dependent on them for trade.
“COOL is making a lot of noise in the United States right now. If somehow they manage to get around the WTO ruling, it will hit us hard again.