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Do ‘free trade’ agreements trump product origin labelling?

Do so-called ‘free trade’ agreements trump your right to know the origin of a product? According to the Trudeau government, yes they do.

Wines from the Psagot Winery and Shiloh Winery are made from grapes grown, fermented and processed in the West Bank, an Israeli-occupied Palestinian territory.

On July 6, the Canadian Food Inspection Agency (CFIA) issued a directive to all Canadian liquor boards about two wines labelled as “Made in Israel”. That directive stated that the Government of Canada “does not recognize Israel’s sovereignty over the territories occupied in 1967 (the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip)” and “as such wine products from these regions that are labelled as a Product of Israel would not be acceptable.”

As such, this decision would appear to be based on existing Canadian foreign policy as it applies to labelling standards outlined in the Food and Drugs Act.

By July 11, the Liquor Control Board of Ontario (LCBO) had sent a letter to all sacramental wine vendors saying the wines should no longer be sold until they were accurately labelled.

Dr. David Kattenburg, a child of Holocaust survivors and complainant in this case, argued, “It’s an open and shut case. Just as Canadian consumers wouldn’t want to find out that a wine labelled ‘Made in France’ is produced from grapes grown entirely in Romania, they should know that these wines are not produced from grapes from Israel.”

But by July 13, the CFIA reversed its directive citing a provision in the Canada-Israel Free Trade Agreement (signed in 1996 under Liberal prime minister Jean Chretien) whereby Israel is to be considered “the territory where its customs laws are applied,” rather than its internationally recognized borders.

As such, this provision in a ‘free trade’ agreement appears to have trumped Canadian foreign policy and a consumers’ right to information on the origin of a good.

On July 17, federal Green Party leader Elizabeth May stated, “Canada shouldn’t be granting preferential treatment to products made in settlements that are in clear violation of international law. The free trade agreement therefore must be changed to reflect this. The European Union and the United States made it clear long ago that goods made in these illegal settlements cannot be mislabelled as ‘Made in Israel.’ Why is Canada singling out Israel for preferential treatment at the expense of both Palestinians’ human rights, and the rights of Canadian consumers?”

But notably, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives (CCPA) has highlighted, “This trade-related rationale does not stand up to scrutiny. Article 1.4.1b of the CIFTA simply says that with respect to Israel the CIFTA applies to ‘the territory where its customs laws are applied’. Under the terms of the 1994 Paris Protocol, Israel and Palestine are part of a customs union, under which Israel collects duties on goods destined for the Palestinian territories. But the existence of a customs union does not change the fact that the West Bank remains occupied territory and is not legally part of Israel.”

The CCPA adds, “More to the point, the CIFTA does not cover product labelling issues. CIFTA Article 4.2 excludes all standards related-matters, noting that ‘The rights and obligations of the Parties relating to standards-related measures shall be governed by the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade [of the World Trade Organization].’ So, if the Israeli government wanted to challenge the CFIA decision to require accurate labelling of West Bank products, it would have to do so through the WTO, not the CIFTA. Israel’s chances of success in a WTO dispute would be slim.”

Other concerns related to international law have been raised about the CFIA backtracking on its original decision.

The group Canadians for Justice and Peace in the Middle East (CJPME) has written, “Under international law, countries that militarily occupy foreign territory are not allowed to colonize that territory with their own civilians: a principle that Israel, its West Bank colonies and wineries are clearly violating. This principle is established via Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention, and is incorporated into Canada law via the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of 2000.”

The Council of Canadians supports accurate labelling for consumers and is deeply concerned that a provision in a free trade agreement has been used to trump existing Canadian foreign policy, the Food and Drugs Act, and potentially even the Geneva Convention.