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WTO ruling prompts grocers to urge Congress to revisit COOL law

by Joan Murphy | December 02, 2011

WASHINGTON -- After hearing news the World Trade Organization ruled against the U.S. country-of-origin labeling program in a trade dispute, the supermarket industry said that Congress should revisit it and perhaps repeal it because it is costing the industry millions of dollars and providing little benefit to consumers.

In December 2008, Canada challenged the COOL law, which required labels to declare the country of origin at retail for certain meats, fish, produce and other commodities. Canada, joined later by Mexico, argued that the farm bill program violated international trade rules in the handling of hog and cattle imports, particularly the provision that animals had to be born, raised and slaughtered in the United States to gain the U.S. COOL label.

A WTO panel ruled Nov. 18 in favor of Canada and Mexico, saying that COOL violated a trade agreement by “according less favorable treatment to imported Canadian cattle and hogs than to like domestic products.”

The supermarket industry pointed to the WTO ruling as an open door to change the law.

“The World Trade Organization recognized what the supermarket industry has known all along -- that COOL is a protectionist law designed to make it more costly and difficult for retailers to sell imported foods,” Food Marketing Institute Regulatory Counsel Erik Lieberman said in a Nov. 23 statement.

FMI opposed COOL when it was first attached to the 2002 farm bill.

“COOL has forced the industry to spend tens millions of dollars each year on unnecessary regulatory burdens all for little or no benefit to consumers,” Mr. Lieberman said.

Enforcement has become more burdensome for supermarkets, “making it challenging for retailers to carry imported meats, produce and seafood,” he said. “Although the compliance rate for the program last year was 97 percent, this year, inspectors are demanding that more redundant records be maintained -- at great cost to grocers.”

Mr. Lieberman added that Congress should repeal it or rework it.

The supermarket industry is not the only link in the food distribution chain concerned about the ruling.

“The [Produce Marketing Association] recognizes there are alternative views regarding country of origin labeling,” said Glenn Boyet, PMA’s senior director for public relations. “Right now, we are reviewing the WTO ruling with a keen eye on what it truly means to the produce industry.”

In the meantime, U.S, trade officials said that WTO did not reject COOL.

“We are pleased that the panel affirmed the right of the United States to require country-of-origin labeling for meat products,” Andrea Mead, press secretary for the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, said in a statement. “Although the panel disagreed with the specifics of how the United States designed those requirements, we remain committed to providing consumers with accurate and relevant information with respect to the origin of meat products that they buy at the retail level. In that regard we are considering all options, including appealing the panel’s decision.”