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Lawmakers seek delay in meat labeling

01/17/2014 @ 5:56am

U.S. lawmakers urged the U.S. Department of Agriculture to hold off on a contested U.S. meat-labeling rule until the World Trade Organization rules on a trade dispute between the U.S., Canada and Mexico.

A delay would give Canadian livestock producers a temporary reprieve from the controversial changes.

A brief section tucked into a spending bill passed by the U.S. House of Representatives Wednesday said the U.S. economy could suffer a $2 billion hit if Canada and Mexico make good on their threats to retaliate in a dispute over the country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, rule. The bill recommended that the Agriculture Department delay the rule's implementation until the WTO rules on the matter.

An official of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, which represents Canadian meat producers, said the recommendation on its own "doesn't mean anything" as it isn't binding on the USDA.

"We would hope they choose" to delay the rule, John Masswohl, director of government and international relations for the lobby group, said in an email.

But "unless USDA advises differently, it [the rule] is being enforced and U.S. cattle buyers have to comply," Mr. Masswohl added.

A spokeswomen for the Agriculture Department wasn't immediately available to comment.

The rule--an amended version of one that the World Trade Organization in 2012 found to be discriminatory against livestock from Canada and Mexico--came into effect last November.

Canadian cattle and pork producers estimate that COOL has cost them about $1 billion a year since mandatory labeling requirements appeared in the U.S. Farm Bill in 2008. They say the amended version is even more onerous, as it requires meat sold in the U.S. to be labeled with the country where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.

Canada and Mexico took their fight against the amended rule to the WTO again, and last September, the trade body established a compliance panel that is expected to issue its finding later this year.

According to explanatory notes in the $1.012 trillion U.S. spending bill, if Canada and Mexico won the WTO fight, the U.S. "will suffer the economic impact of approximately $2 billion in retaliation actions affecting agriculture and non-agriculture jobs and industries across the U.S."

"It is strongly recommended that USDA not force increased costs on industry and consumers and that the Department delay implementation and enforcement of the final rule until the WTO has completed all decisions, " the passage said.

The Agriculture Department isn't compelled to follow the recommendation, according to Brian Rell, a spokesman for Rep. Robert Aderholt, a Republican from Alabama who chairs the agriculture panel of the House Appropriations Committee. But he said the language on COOL in the bill was "very strongly worded."

"The people that will feel the brunt of a ham-handed approach to COOL will be the average wage-earner," Mr. Rell said.

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