Cross-border labelling beef hurting both sides, says Alberta’s agriculture minister

By Bill Mah, Edmonton Journal September 26, 2013

EDMONTON – A decade after bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE) slammed borders shut on Canadian beef, the country’s livestock industry faces new and lingering international battles.

U.S. rules force mandatory country of origin labelling (MCOOL) of Canadian agricultural products including beef and pork and bring with them increased tracking and processing costs. The program was adopted in 2008 after American farm and consumer groups argued shoppers have a right to know where their food comes from.

Despite a World Trade Organization ruling siding with Canada, the rules remain. And Mexico is still closed to Canadian product from animals more than 30 months old and all ground beef.

Alberta Agriculture Minister Verlyn Olson said he raised those sore points at a pair of recent international trade meetings — a Council of State Governments national conference in Kansas City last week and the Tri-National Agricultural Accord meeting in Saskatoon this week, involving Canadian, U.S. and Mexican state and provincial agriculture delegates.

“Our position is … that MCOOL is an unfair trade measure and it’s doing nothing to protect consumers, but it’s doing a lot of damage on both sides of the border,” Olson told reporters on a teleconference call Thursday.

“It’s certainly hurting our livestock producers. Feedlots and so on are incurring extra costs because they have to segregate cattle, but it’s also causing damage in terms of processors on the American side.

While Washington has the final say on MCOOL, Olson said the Alberta and federal governments did win the support of state legislators south of the border.

“When I was in Kansas City, the council of state governments overwhelmingly passed a resolution that acknowledges the negative economic impact and calls on congress to find a fair solution to the issue.”

The Canadians failed to get a similar recommendation passed in Saskatoon, but Olson said the Americans were warned of possible retaliatory tariffs that Ottawa could slap on U.S. products.

Mexican officials, meanwhile were pressured to fully reopen the border to Canadian beef. It is the only major market with a BSE-related ban on cattle over 30 months of age.

“We are anxious for the Mexicans to come into compliance with what other countries around the world are doing in terms of accepting our beef,” Olson said, adding that Mexico is Canada’s fourth-largest agricultural trading partner.

“The stakes are high for our industry here especially in Alberta because we’re responsible for about one-third of Canada’s agricultural trade with Mexico — more than any other province.”

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