U.S. meat-labeling law, a WTO issue, now farm bill target

Reuters

By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON, Oct 30 (Reuters) - Members of a selectHouse-Senate panel on Wednesday targeted for potential repeal aU.S. meat-labeling law that Mexico and Canada have challenged asa violation of world trade rules, and that U.S. meatpackers alsooppose.

The country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law requires labels onpackages of beef, pork, poultry and lamb sold in U.S. stores tocarry specific information on the source of the meat. The U.S.terms it a "consumer information" program.

While favored by consumer groups, COOL has been a lightningrod for dispute for more than a decade. Congress approvedmeat-origin labeling in 2002, but it did not become mandatoryuntil 2009.

The United States re-wrote the regulations this year in anattempt to satisfy a 2012 World Trade Organization ruling, buthas been challenged again at the WTO.

At the first negotiating session on a final version of thenew $500 billion U.S. farm bill, several lawmakers said COOLshould be revised or repealed, in part because of the risk ofinternational sanctions.

"I am hopeful that working together we can prevent theimposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important tomany states," said House Agriculture Committee chairman FrankLucas in an opening statement. Under congressional protocol, hechairs the farm bill talks.

Canada and Mexico say the law led to a decline in sales oftheir cattle and hogs because of additional costs to handlethem. U.S. meatpackers say COOL is a bookkeeping headache thatalso drives up costs.

Defenders such as the National Farmers Union and theConsumer Federation of America say COOL help shoppers makeinformed decisions on their meat purchases. They said there isno need for Congress to intervene.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture says COOL is not a foodsafety or traceability program. Foreign food products must stillmeet U.S. food safety standards.

Republican Senator Pat Roberts from Kansas, one of thelargest U.S. cattle states, said he would support a Houseprovision that was under development and expected to be a repealclause for COOL.

Senate Agriculture chairwoman Debbie Stabenow said COOL"clearly is one of the issues" for farm bill negotiators.

As the farm bill conference kicked off, negotiators, with atarget of completing work before year-end, remain divided onpotential cuts to food stamp funding, but are agree on manyother elements of the legislation.

President Barack Obama last week listed the farm bill as oneof three priorities for completion this year. The administrationhas not spelled out how it will take part in the bill's finalstages.

Conservative Republicans want to cut food stamps by $39billion over a decade, the largest cuts in at least a generationand 10 times the amount proposed by the Senate.

Food stamp recipients, about one of every seven Americans,will see an average 7 percent drop in benefits on Friday withthe expiration of assistance that was part of the 2009 economicstimulus package.

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