The first thing a federal judge in Denver is going to have to sort out when hearing the controversy over country of origin labeling (COOL) is whether a dispute really exists.

It’s possible there is a big misunderstanding occurring over how to read a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling vis-à-vis U.S. law.

“I can tell you that no international panel, including a WTO panel or the WTO Appellate Body, has the ability to change U.S. law,” a spokesperson for the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) told Food Safety News. “It is up to the United States to decide how to respond to the decision, and we are continuing to study the reports and consulting with stakeholders to determine our next steps.”

The way the USTR looks at it, the WTO ruling by a 3-member appellate body upheld the right of the U.S. to adopt labeling requirements for American consumers for the meat they buy. The international ruling went against the U.S. on details like record-keeping and verification requirements.

In other words, the USTR sees no change in policy, only work to do on the details with WTO, and maybe Mexico and Canada, which mounted the original challenge, back in 2008.

Reading the same WTO decision, the feisty Billings, MT-based cattlemen’s association known as R-CALF sees U.S. sovereignty as at-risk because of WTO decisions.

“This WTO attack on our nation’s sovereign right to pass laws under our U.S. Constitution that are critically important to U.S. consumers and U.S. livestock producers will test the metal of the Obama Administration,” R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard said in June when the ruling was issued.

When the Appellate Body came out, Bullard called it “bizarre.”

“The WTO now states that it can not determine if the U.S. COOL law is more trade restrictive than necessary to carry out the objective of the COOL law; but the WTO is nevertheless telling the U.S. it must change its COOL law to comport to international standards,” Bullard said.

So it was no surprise when Bullard called in his lawyers.

Joining R-CALF in filing the lawsuit in federal court in Denver last week were the USA Foundation and Melonhead, a U.S. meat and vegetable distributor. The goal of the lawsuit is to force the USTR and USDA to continue to enforce the COOL law.

While the USTR continues to represent the United States before the WTO Dispute Settlement Body, where it expects to have “a reasonable time to comply” with the ruling, the U.S. Department of Justice will represent the government in the Denver court.