Federal agriculture minister optimistic in battle over country-of-origin labelling

CALGARY – Canada’s agriculture minister sees reason for optimism in an ongoing trade battle with the United States over meat labelling.

Gerry Ritz says the chairman of a U.S. congressional committee has requested that his Department of Agriculture back off on labelling rules that have prompted Ottawa to threaten retaliation.

Country-of-origin labelling (COOL) rules are blamed for complicating the import of meat into the U.S. from Canada and for reducing the amount of Canadian exports to the country by half since 2008.

The rules require detailed labels about the origins of beef, pork and chicken sold in U.S. stores. That drives up the price tag of Canadian exports and undermines their competitiveness.

“I think it’s good. I think it underscores the pressure we’ve been putting on is being recognized,” Ritz said Thursday of the chairman’s request.

“Of course the retaliatory list got their attention. Some of the amendments moved to the Farm Bill in regards to COOL were by a congressman in California who didn’t like the idea of California wines being retaliated.”

The U.S. House of Representatives appropriations committee asked the Department of Agriculture to stop imposing the labelling rules in a note attached to a major spending bill.

“The (budget) agreement does not approve of USDA’s continued implementation, enforcement and the associated spending related to the mandatory country-of-origin labelling regulation for certain meat products during the pending World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute with Canada and Mexico,” said the letter from chairman Hal Rogers of Kentucky.

The committee can’t actually force the department to drop the rules — but it does have control over the agency’s budget.

“I think there’s a growing recognition that COOL is wrong-headed. It’s not even good policy,” Ritz said.

“It might be a political answer to a solution that doesn’t exist, but at the end of the day Americans are starting to recognize it’s hurting them as well.”

Ottawa will continue fighting the regulation at the World Trade Organization, Ritz said, and cattlemen on both sides of the border will go on with their own court action.

Ritz would be pleased to see U.S. lawmakers drop the labelling requirement in an upcoming farm bill.

“That would be the easiest fix from our standpoint. Of course, their system is in disarray. The farm bill would be our first choice because it could be done a lot faster,” Ritz said.

“I’m hopeful. We’ve been years getting to this point. We’re looking at a $1-billion-a-year loss to our livestock sector. So the sooner we get it done, the sooner they’re back to making good money for their product.”