© AgMedia Inc.
by SUSAN MANN
Federal Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz left a meeting with U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack feeling that there’s room for negotiations on the voluntary rules tacked on to the United States’ new food labelling laws.
Ritz says he told Vilsack during their meeting Friday in Washington, D.C. that Canada is unhappy with the voluntary provisions and prepared to relaunch its World Trade Organization (WTO) challenge to Country of Origin Labelling (COOL). Vilsack is concerned the voluntary provisions could lead to trade problems for the U.S., Ritz told reporters during a telephone conference call from the U.S. capital.
On Monday, the final rule for COOL that Canada negotiated with the former administration of George Bush comes into effect. It provides U.S. processors with flexibility to mix Canadian and American cattle fed in the two countries and slaughtered in the U.S. But voluntary provisions outlined by Vilsack in a letter to U.S. stakeholders last month remove that flexibility. Vilsack told processors that all meat needs to be identified with the place the animal was raised, born and slaughtered. Businesses are to be audited for compliance with the voluntary rules.
The U.S. government plans to use the next six months to assess the rules’ effectiveness. Ritz says the American administration hasn’t made it clear what happens next. For example, will the voluntary provisions be made mandatory?
“I came away from the meeting not really assured that they had an end game in sight,” he says.
When the final rule comes in on Monday, Ritz says “the sky is not going to fall.” But the Canadian livestock industry will be going through anxiety not knowing what will happen after six months.
Ritz reassured farmers that Canada’s government has “the WTO challenge idling at the curb, ready to go.”
He urged farmers in the Canadian and American cattle industries to track damage caused by the voluntary requirements. “I would like to give the secretary here a report card once a month, saying ‘here’s what we’re seeing happening right now.’”
John Masswohl, Canadian Cattlemen’s Association spokesman, says the industry is working with agriculture and trade officials to determine what information they need to take a case to the WTO. The industry has been documenting the economic damage from the initial rules launched in September and is prepared to continue. In December, the Cattlemen’s Association pegged the Canadian cattle industry’s loss from the COOL law at $400 million annually.
Masswohl says that they haven’t heard of any major U.S. packers prepared to comply with Vilsack’s voluntary provisions.
Ritz says he’ll continue talking to Vilsack about COOL. But he’ll also work with the Canadian and American livestock industries to get numbers to show Vilsack “this is a wrong-headed direction.” BF