Canada's agriculture minister says time is running short for the U.S. to avoid trade tariffs over its discriminatory meat labelling laws.
Gerry Ritz said if Washington doesn't change its country of origin labelling laws to comply with World Trade Organization rulings in the coming months, Canada will apply as early as the summer to impose retaliatory tariffs on a long list of U.S. goods including beef, orange juice and wine.
"The clock is ticking and the American administration knows it," Ritz said in an interview.
Last month, the United States filed its final appeal of a WTO ruling that found its meat labelling laws, known as COOL, discriminate against Canadian beef and pork exports.
COOL rules require all packaged meat to identify where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered.
Supporters of the law say it better informs U.S. consumers, but opponents argue that segregating animals and tracking them adds costs and violates free-trade agreements.
The federal government estimates the policy costs Canada's pork and beef industries more than $1 billion a year.
Ritz said Canada expects a ruling by the WTO on the U.S. appeal by the middle of 2015. If Washington loses again and fails to act, Canada will seek permission from the trade organization to hit back.
"We are being told that some time late spring or early summer we will have a pretty good direction as to where that is going to go," Ritz said. "We will start lobbying very hard at the WTO to initiate the retaliatory process."
So far the U.S. response to the latest trade ruling has Canada's beef industry wondering if Washington can fix COOL in time.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has been quoted as saying the Obama administration needs direction from Congress on what to do with the meat-labelling legislation.
At the same time, Congress has asked Vilsack for a report by May 1 on what changes need to be made to COOL to comply with the WTO.
John Masswohl, a spokesman for the Canadian Cattlemen's Association, said such last minute back-and-forth doesn't give the Americans much time to act.
"U.S. exporters to Canada should remain concerned as Congress is flirting dangerously close to the timeline for the WTO to authorize Canada and Mexico to implement retaliatory tariffs," he said.
Masswohl said the beef industry in Canada will not be satisfied if Washington simply tinkers with COOL. He said producers want it repealed.
Ritz said Canada made it clear last year that it is prepared to retaliate with trade sanctions if Washington doesn't comply with the WTO ruling and has reinforced the point many times since.
He said the federal government won't hesitate to act and may add more items to the trade sanction list that already includes pork, cheese, apples, corn, maple syrup, chocolate, pasta, jewelry and mattresses.
"We have the ability to add to it should we need to put pressure on a state, senator or congressman. We are serious," Ritz said.
"At the end of the day you can be assured that we are not going to blink."
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