The American Meat Institute (AMI) is coming down on the side of Mexico and Canada when it comes to opposing the USA’s Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) as mandated by the 2008 Farm Bill.

AMI has weighted in with a seven-page letter to the U.S. Trade Representative saying the COOL law puts the United States at odds with its international trade obligations.

nafta-flags.jpg“Critical to the United States’ ability to enforce successfully World Trade Organization (WTO) and North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) obligations is consistency in U.S. behavior and actions,” wrote Mark D. Dopp, senior vice president, regulatory affairs, and general counsel.  “In that regard, the United States’ credibility is undermined when U.S. legislation violates America’s commitments pursuant to those international agreements.”

Senator Tim Johnson, D-SD, enlisted a bipartisan group of 24 members of the U.S. Senate to stand behind the COOL law.  Johnson, who wrote the COOL section of the 2008 Farm Bill, got his colleagues to sign a letter to USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Trade Representative Ron Kirk that makes it clear that Congressional intent on COOL has not changed.

“We believe that in a manner consistent with General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT) obligations, the COOL program as signed into law in the 2008 Farm Bill is nondiscriminatory in its treatment of imported goods, mandating both domestic and imported goods covered under the law be labeled with country of origin,” the Senators wrote.

The Senate letter also points out that both Canada and Mexico have food-labeling programs of their own.

Canada and Mexico have forced the United States to defend the COOL law before a WTO Dispute Settlement panel.

For its part, AMI makes several arguments that COOL “is not consistent” with GATT or WTO agreements.   Its strongest point may be that COOL “violates” the WTO agreement on technical barriers to trade by creating an unnecessary obstacle to international trade.  It argues that COOL provides information that is of “scant benefit” to consumers.

“In a number of cases meat packers have chosen either to cease buying imported livestock–an extreme trade restriction—or have confined the processing of imported livestock to limited dates and times,” Dopp wrote. “These practices, in turn, have significantly restricted trade.”

“Moreover, importers are forced to abandon just-in-time logistics, and instead ship in large lots, or not ship at all,” he continued.  “USDA border inspectors are sometimes not able to process large-lot shipments in a timely manner, which can force importers to pay–on a discriminatory basis–extra for expensive holding pens and longer transport times.  The net effect of COOL has been to reduce U.S. market access for foreign livestock producers.”

Farm and ranch groups, like Montana-based R-CALF, strongly favor the COOL law and often point to the concentration of the meat industry as the real problem.  Eighty-eight percent of the 34.4 million head of cattle slaughtered in the U.S. in 2008 were processed by one of just four companies.  Up to two million head came from foreign sources.