The House Agriculture Committee voted 38-6 to repeal a "country-of-origin" labeling law for beef, pork and poultry Wednesday — just two days after the World Trade Organization ruled against parts of the law. The labels tell consumers what countries the meat is from: for example, "born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States" or "born, raised and slaughtered in the United States."
The WTO ruled Monday that the U.S. labels put Canadian and Mexican livestock at a disadvantage, rejecting a U.S. appeal after a similar WTO decision last year.
The Obama administration had already revised the labels once to try to comply with previous WTO rulings. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it's now up to Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation — such as extra tariffs — from the two neighbour countries.
The law was initially written at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by some consumer advocates who say it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. The supporters have called on the U.S. government to negotiate with Canada and Mexico to find labels acceptable to all countries.
But many in the U.S. meat industry — including meat processors who buy animals from abroad — have called for a repeal of the law, which they have fought for years, including unsuccessfully in federal court.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has long backed the meat industry's call for repeal. Along with several of his colleagues, he introduced the legislation to repeal the labeling requirements hours after the WTO decision. He said the bill is a "targeted" response.
"We cannot sit back and let American businesses be held hostage to the desires of a small minority who refuse to acknowledge that the battle is lost," Conaway said.
All but six of the committee's Democrats supported the bill. Minnesota Rep. Collin Peterson, the panel's top Democrat and a longtime supporter of the labeling, was one of the few to vote against it. He said there is still time to find a "workable North American solution."
The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, also repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. Conaway said the poultry industry asked to be included after facing "high costs and little if any quantifiable benefits" from the labeling law.
The legislation would leave in place country of origin labeling requirements for several other commodities, including lamb, venison, seafood, fruits and vegetables and some nuts.
Canada and Mexico have called for repeal of the law and said they would seek authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports. The law causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin — a costly process that has forced some U.S. companies to stop buying exports.
Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws, mostly at the behest of the northern U.S. ranchers. The original labels were less specific, saying a product was a "product of U.S." or "product of U.S. and Canada." WTO rejected those labels in 2012, and USDA tried again with the more detailed labels a year later. The WTO rejected those revised rules last year, and the United States filed one last appeal, rejected Monday by the WTO.
Debbie Barker of the Center for Food Safety said the WTO's ruling, and the House's action, show no regard for shoppers who want to know where their meat comes from.
"It's stunning that some members of Congress are so quick to respond to a closed-door, international trade body with no apparent regard for the wishes of American consumers," Barker said.
On the Senate side, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas also has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling, but he has yet to introduce a bill.
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