Not COOL: Coalition Wants Congress to Suspend Meat Labeling Rules

Fearing that a ruling by the World Trade Organization could lead to heavy tariffs on exports to Canada and Mexico, a coalition of food-manufacturing and agricultural groups has asked congressional leaders to suspend packaging rules that require manufacturers to label a meat's country of origin.

The agricultural industry’s long battle against a controversial labeling regulation appears to be getting even more complicated.

As an industry lawsuit challenging a U.S. Department of Agriculture country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirement for meat products lingers in the background, a coalition of food-processing and meat groups has asked Congress to suspend the rule if the World Trade Organization concludes that it violates international trade regulations.

A WTO compliance panel is considering a claim brought by Canada and Mexico that the rule discriminates against products from their countries and therefore constitutes an unfair trade practice.

The COOL Reform Coalition—including the Snack Food Association and the National Cattleman’s Beef Association, along with brand-name corporations such as Nestle USA, PepsiCo, and Tyson Foods—says a WTO finding that the COOL regulation violates fair trade rules would put the food industry between a rock and a hard place—forced to label meat in the United States but likely facing retaliatory tariffs on meat exported to Canada and Mexico.

Meanwhile, the meat industry’s lawsuit challenging the labeling regulation on free-speech grounds is pending in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit. In March, the industry lost its appeal before a panel of that court; the full court agreed to rehear the case a few weeks later.

calling for Help

Anticipating the upcoming WTO ruling, the COOL Reform Coalition took its case to Congress, asking lawmakers to order the USDA to suspend the regulation if the compliance panel says the rule runs afoul of international trade obligations.

“We respectfully submit that it would be intolerable for the United States to maintain, even briefly, a rule that has been deemed noncompliant by the WTO,” the letter, sent to the top-ranking members of the House and Senate agriculture committees [PDF], states. “With little potential for quick congressional action after a WTO final adjudication, we request that Congress authorize and direct the secretary of agriculture to suspend indefinitely the revised COOL rule for muscle cuts of meat upon a final adjudication of noncompliance with WTO obligations.”

According to Politico, an interim WTO ruling has been shared confidentially with the United States, Canada, and Mexico. A final ruling is expected by the end of July.

(Tim Boyle/Getty Images News/Thinkstock)

Ernie Smith

By Ernie Smith

Ernie Smith is a former senior editor for Associations Now. MORE

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