California ranchers and their Capitol Hill allies are scrambling to peel away a country-of-origin labeling law they fear will hurt the state.
Facing potentially punishing tariffs on U.S. wine, apples, cherries and more, after a World Trade Organization ruling against the United States’ labeling requirements for beef and pork, the Californians are mobilizing. They face, though, Midwestern resistance as well as a history of past failures to undo the label requirements.
“This is no longer about labeling,” said Rep. Jim Costa, D-Calif. “This is to ensure we aren’t dealt a devastating impact to our agricultural economy through tariff retaliation.”
Mexico and Canada could impose the tariff hikes on U.S. products because a World Trade Organization appellate panel ruled May 18 that the federal country-of-origin labeling requirements for beef and pork, known as COOL, violate U.S. international trade obligations.
Having to label beef or pork products as coming from a foreign country accords “less favourable treatment to imported Canadian cattle and hogs than to like domestic products,” the appellate panel concluded.
Mexico has not yet identified which U.S. products it might target, but Canada’s published list includes fresh apples, cherries, chocolate, frozen orange juice, tomato ketchup and wine, among other products.
“The retaliatory tariffs would affect California, and most of the rest of the nation as well,” Costa said in an interview.
Costa and three other Californians on the House Agriculture Committee joined Wednesday in voting for legislation repealing the affected country-of-origin labeling requirements. The measure easily passed the Republican-controlled panel by a 38-6 margin. Three of the six Democrats who opposed it represent Minnesota districts.
“I think repealing it is premature,” said Rep. Collin Peterson of Minnesota, the agriculture panel’s senior Democrat, adding that “we should take a serious look at the labeling requirements that are in place in 60 other countries.”
Peterson further noted that “there are still several steps that have to occur” before tariff retaliation can take place. Months could pass, and U.S, Mexican and Canadian officials could conceivably strike a deal short of outright repeal of the labeling requirement.
“Consumers demand more and more information about the food they purchase,” National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson told a House subcommittee in March, “and COOL gives them one more tool to make informed decisions.”
The House measure would repeal the labeling requirement for beef and pork. Lawmakers, at the behest of the politically vocal poultry industry, also added poultry to the labeling repeal legislation although it was not part of the World Trade Organization dispute.
“We do support the repeal of the (COOL) legislation,” said Bill Mattos, president of the Modesto-based California Poultry Federation, citing concerns that Canada and Mexico could “retaliate with the poultry industry in the United States.”
Supporters hope the legislation can pass the House before July 4, Costa noted. With 73 co-sponsors, including Democratic Rep. Mike Thompson and Republican Reps. Jeff Denham, Doug LaMalfa, Tom McClintock and Devin Nunes from California’s farm-dense Central Valley, the repeal measure enjoys momentum in the wake of the WTO ruling.
The big test, as with most legislation, will come in the Senate, where Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein says she is preparing a bill.
“Consumers deserve to know where the food they buy comes from,” Feinstein said in a statement, “but we need to make sure it’s done in a way that doesn’t destabilize California exports.”
Past repeal efforts have fallen short, amid a complicated legal and political history that has revealed schisms within the broader U.S. agricultural industry.
Lawmakers included in the 2002 farm bill mandatory retail-level labeling requirements for fresh fruits and vegetables, beef, pork, lamb, seafood, and peanuts. There then followed a series of delays, revisions, additions and regulatory sidesteps as well as World Trade Organization challenges repeatedly won by Mexico and Canada.
From the start, fruit and vegetable groups like the California Grape and Tree Fruit League and California Asparagus Commission voiced support for country-of-origin labeling, while some beef industry leaders have long opposed it for their products.
“COOL is a farce...a failed experiment,” Michael T. Smith, special projects manager for the California-based Harris Ranch, told a House panel in March, as he called for repeal. “Half-measures or other alterations to COOL will only bring more uncertainty and possible WTO challenges.”