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Barlow says WTO COOL ruling is not cool

Council of Canadians chairperson Maude Barlow has stated that yesterday’s World Trade Organization (WTO) decision against country-of-origin labelling (COOL) is an affront. She says, “People have a right to know where and under what conditions their food was produced!” This is especially true as the Harper government has cut the number of food-safety inspectors in this country.

In various campaign blogs over the past six years, the Council of Canadians has talked about the ongoing dispute between the Harper government and the United States at the WTO over these rules.

In May 2009, CBC reported, “The [labelling] legislation, which was implemented in the U.S. on an interim basis in September [2008] and became full law in March [2009], requires meat processed in the U.S. but made from Canadian livestock to be labelled as Canadian rather than simply North American as has been the case to date. …The legislation requires country-of-origin labelling on beef, pork, lamb, chicken, goat meat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts. …The law is aimed at helping consumers protect their health by avoiding foods from countries experiencing food-borne illnesses.”

In October 2009, the Globe and Mail reported, “Trade Minister Stockwell Day said that he has asked a WTO dispute settlement panel to determine whether U.S. country-of-origin labelling rules impose ‘unfair and unnecessary’ costs on Canadian farmers. …Exporters warn that such rules are conspiring to make the Canada-U.S. border thicker, undermining long-standing ties within integrated industries.”

Then in May 2011, Reuters reported, “[In a confidential interim ruling], the WTO has ruled against some U.S. labeling regulations for meat sold in supermarkets, saying they discriminate against foreign suppliers…” That report noted, “The case highlights a growing trend toward subtle trade barriers — including standards on health, safety or consumer information — that can hit demand for imports. The ruling is expected to spur similar cases around the world where exports worth billions of dollars are being slowed by such standards, some of which are designed specifically to galvanize local consumer loyalty.”

And by March 2013, the U.S. government had revised its COOL program to bring it in line with the WTO decision in 2011 (upheld at the appeal stage in 2012) that the rules were too onerous and violated the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. But the U.S. revisions strengthened requirements for the labelling of meat, which the Harper government denounced as even more discriminatory.

Yesterday, the Canadian Press reported, “Canada and Mexico have defeated the United States’ meat labelling rules at the World Trade Organization, winning a final appeal that could pave the way to retaliatory sanctions. If the U.S. wants to avoid a broader trade war, Monday’s decision means it might have to drop its insistence on special grocery-store labels that identify whether beef and pork were born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S. …Business groups in both countries mostly celebrated the WTO decision. …The Obama administration says it’s working with lawmakers to find a legislative fix.”

To read commentary on this issue from our ally the U.S.-based Food and Water Watch, please click here and here.

Further reading
Canada to challenge US food labelling law at the WTO (October 2009 blog)
Where’s the beef from? (May 2011 blog)
Canada protests while U.S. consumer groups celebrate revised meat labelling policy (March 2013 blog by Stuart Trew)