Congress

Repeal of country-of-origin meat labels may be tucked in U.S. budget bill

Meat labels such as this one showing that ground beef originated in Australia would disappear if California legislators are successful in adding a provision to the must-pass bill to keep the government funded after Friday. The World Trade Organization has ruled that such "country of origin" labels put Canadian and Mexican ranchers at a disadvantage.
Meat labels such as this one showing that ground beef originated in Australia would disappear if California legislators are successful in adding a provision to the must-pass bill to keep the government funded after Friday. The World Trade Organization has ruled that such "country of origin" labels put Canadian and Mexican ranchers at a disadvantage. AP

California ranchers hope a massive spending bill can be used to end a country-of-origin labeling law that could otherwise cost them serious money.

Facing possible tariffs from Canada and Mexico, the ranchers and their Capitol Hill allies are scrambling to include a repeal of the labeling law in the so-called “omnibus” appropriations package needed to fund the federal government after Friday.

“This is a big problem needing fixing quickly,” said prominent San Joaquin Valley rancher John Harris. “The House has already passed a legislative fix. The Senate needs to get something done.”

A World Trade Organization panel ruled May 18 that U.S. country-of-origin labeling requirements for beef and pork, known as COOL, violate U.S. international trade obligations. Labeling meat products as foreign provides “less favorable treatment to imported Canadian cattle and hogs than to like domestic products,” the appellate panel concluded.

Many opponents of repeal cite U.S. public sentiment, which prompted passage of the initial meat-related labeling law in 2002. “More than a decade of polling data proves that American consumers consistently and overwhelmingly want country of origin labeling, and frequently by majorities of more than 90 percent,” Rep. Rosa DeLauro, D-Conn., said during debate before the House of Representatives passed a stand-alone repeal measure in June.

All House members representing Sacramento Valley and San Joaquin Valley districts voted for the repeal, except for Rep. John Garamendi, D-Walnut Grove.

Ranchers aren’t the only ones covetously eying the spending bill as a way to get other legislation passed. Because the $1.1 trillion measure must pass, California lawmakers on both sides of the aisle see it as the engine that can get controversial measures to the White House for a presidential signature.

I don't think the COOL requirements helped the beef industry at all. But I agree with the WTO, as well as Canada and Mexico, that they do act as a detriment to free trade.

California rancher John Harris

Despite resistance, for example, House members from the San Joaquin Valley still insist the funding bill might include water and drought provisions that, so far, have alienated Northern California Democrats. With the bill likely to exceed 1,000 pages, a few technical-sounding but critical paragraphs could fly under the radar.

Other lawmakers seek limits on the Obama administration’s rules defining the “waters of the United States” subject to federal protection. As part of a tax package that could end up in the bill, Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Visalia, is pushing an increase in the amount of money that can be claimed as first-year depreciation for planting vines and trees.

The bill itself reflects the broken congressional budgeting process. In theory, the House and Senate are supposed to approve 13 appropriations measures that cover different fields, such as defense and agriculture. In practice, stymied lawmakers end up passing one humongous bill in which everything is included.

The current spending law expires Friday. Because last-minute negotiations are moving slowly, it’s likely Congress will have to pass a short-term extension to avoid another government shutdown.

“I’m seriously looking at having us in on Friday or over the weekend to get our work done,” House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of Bakersfield said during a news conference Monday.

If he plays his cards right, McCarthy’s leadership position could aid those Californians seeking to peel off the country of origin labeling requirement. In June, he joined 299 other House members in voting for the stand-alone bill repealing the law.

The WTO ruled Monday that Canada and Mexico could impose retaliatory tariffs totaling $1 billion. Canada’s published list for potential tariff hikes includes fresh apples, cherries, frozen orange juice and wine.

“The huge tariffs that may now be implemented as a retaliatory action can seriously damage the export potential on U.S. beef, as it will be less competitive,” said Harris, the San Joaquin Valley rancher, adding that “the retaliatory tariffs can spread to many other ag exports.”

“The omnibus is the most feasible vehicle, the most likely to be successful,” Rep. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, said Tuesday, adding that it’s “the best opportunity we’ve had” to repeal the country-of-origin labeling.

Michael Doyle: 202-383-0006, @MichaelDoyle10

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