Alberta Ag Minister seeks support from U.S. meat-packers in COOL fight

By Amanda Stephenson, Calgary Herald October 31, 2013

CALGARY – Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson will be in Chicago next week, trying to rally U.S. packers to put pressure on their own government and get a costly and controversial meat labelling law repealed.

Olson will join representatives of the Saskatchewan and Manitoba governments at the North American Meat Association Conference, an annual gathering of meat packers and processors. The U.S. meat packing industry has already been vocal about its own opposition to mandatory country of origin labelling, or COOL, so the Canadian politicians hope to work with them to fight the law.

“It’s a natural thing, because we are part of an integrated industry here in North America,” Olson said. “And that’s part of our frustration — that Congress, with its COOL rule, doesn’t seem to recognize that.”

The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s COOL law requires that meat derived from animals born, reared or slaughtered outside the U.S. must be labelled to indicate the country or countries involved. Canada believes the law violates the North American Free Trade Agreement, since it results in extra tracking and segregation costs for Canadian hogs and cattle exported to the U.S. In October, Tyson Foods — the biggest U.S. meat processor and the third-largest buyer of Canadian cattle — announced it would no longer accept Canadian cattle shipped directly to its beef plants, since the cost of segregating the product in the warehouse is so high.

A group of meat and livestock groups in Canada and the U.S. filed a lawsuit in July in an effort to block the COOL legislation, and the Canadian government has appealed to the World Trade Organization. Canada has also released a list of U.S. products it says it will impose retaliatory tariffs on if the country does not repeal COOL.

John Masswohl — director of government and international relations for the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association — said he hopes the provincial ministers will use the North American Meat Association Conference to hammer home that point. He said U.S. packers already oppose COOL because of the extra costs it imposes, but they also need to know that their own products are among those that will be targeted if Canada moves ahead with tariffs.

“If the issue is not fixed, there is retaliation waiting at the end of that track,” Masswohl said. “I think it’s important to look those guys in the eye and say, ‘This is what’s coming.’ ”

The timing is also important because U.S. lawmakers have begun negotiations on a new farm bill. At the first negotiating session on Wednesday, several U.S. congressmen spoke out against COOL — in part because it could lead to international sanctions.

Masswohl said it could take until the end of 2014 before Canada is given WTO authorization to impose sanctions, but the drafting of a new farm bill gives the U.S. a chance to address the issue before then.

“It’s far better to take the opportunity now and fix it, and then we can all get off of this train,” he said.

Olson said he has already provided state agriculture secretaries with lists of specific products their local farmers stand to lose money on if sanctions are imposed. In addition to pork and beef, Canada has proposed imposing retaliatory tariffs on orange juice, breads and pastries, pasta, wine, chocolate, and produce like apples, cherries, corn, and potatoes.

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association estimates the cattle industry has lost on average $640 million annually because of COOL, while the Canadian Pork Council estimates lost exports of live swine at $500 million annually.

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