— by Lee Pitts
In the last three years, the World Trade Organization has ruled four times that our country of origin labeling law violates international trade rules. You remember the WTO don’t you? That socialist advocacy group that hates capitalism and the wealth it has created, except of course, when they can get their greedy hands on some of that wealth.
How many times must we fight this COOL battle? The answer, of course, is until Canada, Mexico, the NCBA, and the Big Three multinational packers get what they want: to be rid of COOL. They don’t even want a label that says your beef is “A Product of North America” because that would limit them from bringing in beef from 30 other countries that sell us beef. Their idea of a country of origin label would be one that reads, “A Product of the Global Village”.
It Doesn’t Make Sense
COOL first appeared on American meat packages in 2008 and since then Canada and Mexico have cried that COOL discriminates against their beef. They took their case to the World Trade Organization who, on March 23, 2012, issued a ruling from on high that said we couldn’t continue to discriminate against our fellow Norte Americanos like that. So it was no big surprise when the WTO said that we must bring our country-of-origin labeling into line with global trade laws.
As R-CALF’s Bill Bullard said, “The WTO ruling led by Presiding Member Ricardo Ramírez-Hernández, a Mexican national, favors both Canada and Mexico.” Ramírez-Hernández, by the way, presided as an appellate jurist in both of the U.S. COOL appeals before the WTO. He represented Mexico in international trade litigation and he served as lead counsel to the Mexican government in several WTO disputes. Said Bullard, “Due process dictates that a representative of a party to a dispute cannot serve as a judge over the dispute. Our U.S. judicial system would never tolerate this. Yet, the WTO condones this conflict of interest.”
Bullard also finds that WTO’s timing might be a little off. “It is amazing that the WTO is accusing COOL of impeding live cattle imports when such imports from Canada and Mexico under the COOL rule hit a 7-year high in 2014 and when imported Canadian and Mexican cattle are commanding historically high prices.”
With the WTO verdict in his pocket K. Michael Conaway, a House member from Texas who has spent years trying to get rid of COOL, introduced a bipartisan bill that would effectively repeal country of origin labeling requirements for beef, pork, and chicken, while leaving intact the requirements for all other covered commodities.
Conaway said of his bill, “We must do all we can to avoid retaliation by Canada and Mexico, and this bill accomplishes that through full repeal of labeling requirements for beef, pork, and chicken.” This causes us to ponder, why is Country of Origin labeling unfair to foreign pig, poultry and beef producers but not to producers of shellfish, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts and ginseng that also have country of origin labeling? Maybe it’s because the pecan producers don’t have a JBS or an NCBA leading the unCOOL charge.
You’re Paying For It
For years I’ve made the claim that the NCBA would probably be much happier with fewer American cattle ranchers and, by gosh, they’ve gotten their wish. The basis for my statement is that since the merger, the NCBA is getting its hands on every checkoff dollar collected for every 600 pounds of beef we import. When the NCBA finally gets Congress to double the checkoff to two bucks the NCBA will get that dollar too. But if that same 600 pounds of beef was produced by an American rancher the NCBA would only get their grubby hands on fifty cents because the Cattleman’s Beef Board sends half of those American checkoff dollars back to the states.
Any highly paid employee of the NCBA who wanted to keep getting significant pay raises could probably do the math. Which would you rather have, fifty cents or a dollar?
A person who knows the inner workings of the NCBA confirmed my suspicions. “NCBA’s financial incentives are, as you essentially said, but I’d say more strongly, that if you could eliminate domestic beef production in favor of imported beef, NCBA’s budget would double! And the state checkoffs would disappear. And not only that, foreign interests would then have a great deal more clout as to how the USDA treats the U.S. beef industry. INCLUDING ITS PRIVATE LAND USE! The letter writer concluded, “Not only did the NCBA become an agency of the USDA, it became legally mandated to promote foreign beef.”
In other words, we are funding our own demise through the beef checkoff.
What’s The Rush?
So when NCBA President Philip Ellis says that Congress must act quickly in getting rid of COOL you’ll understand where he’s coming from. In a release the NCBA President said, “We have long said that COOL is not just burdensome and costly to cattle producers, it is generally ignored by consumers and it violates our international trade obligations.”
Another unCOOL advocate who opposed COOL as far back as the 2002 Farm Bill was the National Pork Producers Council. (Think of them as the NCBA of pork.) After the recent WTO ruling their President, Ron Prestage, said, “Unless Congress acts now, Canada and Mexico will put tariffs on dozens of U.S. products. That’s a death sentence for U.S. jobs and exports. If it doesn’t act, the lost jobs and the damage to our economy will be on lawmakers’ heads.”
What alternate universe is the Pig President living in by implying that by getting rid of COOL and bringing in more foreign meat we would be improving the American economy?
Avowed enemies of COOL are using the latest WTO ruling as an excuse to kill COOL once and for all but R-CALF’s Bill Bullard wonders what’s the rush? “Because Congress decided to cede U.S. sovereignty by subjecting our domestic laws and regulations to an international tribunal, it should at least follow the WTO process all the way to the end. There is still an arbitration process where Canada and Mexico actually have to prove they have suffered financial harm before the WTO will authorize those countries to impose retaliatory tariffs. Surrendering our COOL law at this early juncture would be an unprecedented concession by Congress that it reveres preliminary actions by the WTO more than it reveres our nation’s Constitution.”
If the NCBA, NPPC and Congress are successful in killing COOL Bullard says “This could cause the demise of the independent, commercial U.S. cattle producer, just as it has already devastated the independent, U.S. commercial sheep producer. We are urging Congress to take no action as a result of this ruling and are encouraging the U.S. Trade Representative to continue defending the sovereign interests of the United States in the next step of the dispute process in which the U.S. can dispute Canada’s and Mexico’s claims of financial harm.”
Bullard urges Congress to, “Stand firm. Anything less would be an unconscionable surrender of U.S. sovereignty.”
Bullard is right. COOL is not dead yet. If you go on to WTO’s web site they say that “everything the WTO does is the result of negotiations.” So let the negotiations begin. Bill Bullard was joined in this call to non-action by National Farmer’s Union President Roger Johnson. “The House Agriculture Committee has succumbed to lobbying and scare tactics from foreign governments and multinational meatpackers and inserted itself prematurely into the WTO process by voting for a bill to repeal COOL.”
Johnson continued, “In the past China has sought approval to export frozen, chilled and raw chicken to the U.S. Today, those products would bear a ‘born, raised, slaughtered in China’ under the mandatory country of origin labeling.”
Without COOL, Chinese chickens would sell on equal footing with American produced chicken. I’ve never been one to stand up for poultry but come on, you remember China don’t you, the trading partner that sold infant formula adulterated with melamine that killed six infants, and toxic pet food that killed thousands of animals. Without COOL Johnson says, “Consumers will be UNABLE to vote with their pocketbook and avoid Chinese chicken if and when the USDA approves the importation of fresh, chilled, or frozen chicken from China.”
Johnson also noted that the committee-passed bill went well beyond the bounds of the WTO dispute by including chicken, ground beef and ground pork, three products with labels never deemed out of compliance with WTO obligations. “This was a telling action by the House Agriculture Committee to repeal WTO-compliant labels due to the personal opposition of a few members of Congress of the law.”
According to Johnson, “Despite the World Trade Organization’s ruling on May 18, Canada and Mexico are not yet authorized to retaliate. The arbitration process will begin in the next month and continue on for another couple of months, at the very least. While those who have opposed giving consumers more information on where their meat products are from have focused on potential retaliation, retaliation is relevant only if the parties cannot reach an agreement on how to move forward and then only after an arbitration process,” said Johnson.
Proving that Mexico and Canadian beef producers have been financially discriminated against won’t be easy. Dr. Robert Taylor at Auburn University says that there is significant evidence indicating that any harm to our trading partners has in fact been negligible at most.”
Agriculture Committee ranking member Collin C. Peterson said, “I’m disappointed that the WTO ruled against the United States but I think repealing COOL is premature. I don’t think this is the best way to avoid retaliation and, quite frankly, I don’t think the Senate will be able to pass a repeal. I would suggest that we instead take some time to thoughtfully consider our next steps.”
Cause and Effect
As a beef producer have you ever stopped to consider that COOL just may have played a role in fattening your wallet? According to R-CALF’s Bullard, since COOL began, “U.S. cow/calf producers, backgrounders and feeders have received the highest nominal prices in the history of their industry and their share of the consumers’ beef dollar has jumped to 55%, which is a 20-year high. This means COOL helped producers recover their lost market share that packers and retailers captured from them prior to COOL. Also, consumer demand measured by Kansas State University increased nearly 12 points since COOL’s implementation, indicating that consumers are more than willing to pay for COOL even while extremely tight cattle supplies are driving beef prices higher. The cost of COOL is estimated to be less than half of one penny per pound.”
Bullard says, “Weakening of COOL would severely reduce marketplace competition that has already been severely eroded by unprecedented marketplace consolidation. Without COOL the meatpackers, rather than consumers, would be empowered to unilaterally decide from which country to source the livestock and meat.”
Amidst all this talk about how terrible COOL is in the United States did you know that Canada has its own version of COOL? That’s right, Canada wants to outlaw COOL in the United States but it’s okay in Canada. What in the world is going on here?
The Canadian Food Inspection Agency says that “Canadian consumers use food labels to make more informed choices about the food they purchased.”
According to the Canadian agency’s web site, “In Canada, there are mandatory requirement for certain food products to indicate the country of origin on their labels,” Canada demands country of origin on wine and brandy, dairy products, honey, fish and seafood products, fresh fruits, fresh vegetables, eggs-shelled and processed, meat products, maple products and processed fruit and vegetable products. Generally, for the above foods, the words “Product of so and so” must appear on the label. “For example, prepackaged cheese from the United States imported into Canada is required to be labelled “Product of United States.”
So, let’s recap. NCBA wants to get rid of COOL so they can fill their coffers with more checkoff dollars collected from imported beef. Certain Congresspersons want to get rid of COOL because unCOOL multinational companies contributed to their PAC’s. Canada, even though they have country of origin labeling in their country, doesn’t want to afford American citizens the same right. The WTO wants to get rid of COOL so that some day we’ll all be one big happy global socialist family. And multinational packers like JBS, Tyson and Cargill want to get rid of COOL so they can flood the U.S. with cheaper meat produced elsewhere where they have less strict laws than American ranchers must operate under. Beef from Australia, Brazil and Argentina and 29 other countries will sit side by side with American beef in grocery stores and no one will know where any of it came from.
Let’s see, are we forgetting anyone? Oh, yes, we almost forgot the American rancher, who is proud of the beef he or she raises and overwhelmingly supports COOL. And then there’s the American consumer who has become almost an afterthought in this debate. According to a 2014 Consumer Report survey, 90 percent of Americans support and want COOL.
But what do they know?