WASHINGTON - A U.S. House of Representatives committee is moving swiftly to get rid of labels on packages of meat that say where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.
The House Agriculture Committee will consider a bill to repeal a "country of origin" labelling law for meat on Wednesday — two days after the World Trade Organization ruled against parts of it.
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.
Now that the revised labels have also been struck down, U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has called on Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation — such as extra tariffs — from the two neighbour countries.
Canada and Mexico have said they will seek authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports. The two countries have opposed the law because it 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.
Supporters of the labels, including northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry, and some consumer advocates, 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.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway and several of his colleagues on the committee introduced the bill Monday to repeal the labelling requirements for beef, pork and poultry. The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, also repealing country of origin labelling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork.
"This bill is a targeted response that will remove uncertainty, provide stability and bring us back into compliance," Conaway said.
Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws, mostly at the behest of the northern U.S. ranchers. The original labels were vaguer, 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 specific 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.
Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas also has said he will move swiftly to respond to the WTO ruling, but has yet to introduce a bill.
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