The controversy over Country of Origin Labeling highlights the problems with international trade agreements, in that case the World Trade Organization’s myriad rules governing “fairness” in how member countries handle imports and exports of meat.

Of course, one country’s definition of fairness can be another country’s formal complaint.

In the case of the ongoing appeals to WTO over the rules governing COOL, the complications are at least partly the consequence that affects animal agriculture. It’s not merely the commodities involved — beef and pork — it’s the fact that live animals are crossing borders as participants in the production chain seek to capitalize on potential efficiencies.

Much of the media coverage of the COOL controversy focused on a consumer right-to-know argument. If columnists or commentators consider that mandate to be a priority, then COOL is important and necessary. If they don’t, then not so much.

However, trade in other agricultural commodities, ones that consumers never encounter directly, are equally contentious — only the media never bothers to investigate.

Case in point: Wheat.

Other than an (alleged) epidemic of gluten allergies, no one considers one of the country’s leading agricultural products worthy of couple paragraphs on page 12 of the local newspaper.

Not that anyone reads newspapers any more.

In the wake of COOL, however, there’s a U.S.-Canada controversy that is equally contentious, if far less visible: Canada is screwing American wheat farmers, and someone needs to stop it!

A factual judgment

That’s a quick summary of the complaint lodged by the U.S. Wheat Associates and the National Association of Wheat Growers, both of which are demanding changes in Canada’s treatment of U.S. wheat exports.

In a letter to Gerry Ritz, Canadian Minister of Agriculture and Agri-Food, and Ed Fast, the Canadian Minister of International Trade, the two organizations charged that, “While there has been positive collaboration between the two countries on wheat policy, the recent WTO COOL decision concerning the labeling of meat highlights Canada’s inconsistency on the issue of treatment of foreign agricultural products.”

The big, bad Canucks are at it again, and we’re not talking about Vancouver’s hockey team.

Is the beef over wheat legitimate? Here’s the facts so you can judge for yourself:

  • Fact No. 1: The United States is Canada’s leading wheat export market.
  • Fact No. 2: The United States allows wheat grown in Canada to be graded and traded identically to American wheat in the marketplace.
  • Fact No. 3: Canada’s Grains Act and Varietal Registration System (VRS) does not permit U.S. wheat growers parity with Canadian wheat. Under the Canadian grading system, all foreign-grown grain is automatically segregated and downgraded to the lowest designation, whether or not the wheat is an approved Canadian variety and regardless of its quality.

No matter how you grade it, mill it and bake it, that’s not fair, the wheat industry’s trade groups are insisting.

“Our concerns about the unfair regulatory environment that U.S. wheat faces in Canada closely parallel the arguments Canada successfully made in its WTO complaint against U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) requirements,” USW Chairman Roy Motter and NAWG President Brett Blankenship stated in a letter to the Canadian ministers. “Specifically, the WTO Appellate Body found that the COOL measure was ‘inconsistent with Article 2.1 of the TBT Agreement because it accords less favorable treatment to imported livestock than to like domestic livestock.’

“It is readily apparent to us that Canada’s treatment of imported wheat is less favorable than that of domestic wheat.”

The outrage is understandable, as is the proposed remedy: Rather than mandate labeling of foreign grain, the market should be allowed to decide value.

“Canada argued during the COOL case that regulatory segregation harms industries on both sides of the border,” the wheat groups’ letter stated, “and we hope that any reforms to Canada’s grain regime would end this segregation altogether.”

Such developments would “strengthen the relationship between the two countries” and lay a foundation for a “long-term, mutually profitable trade environment.”

If only that same approach could be applied to beef and pork.

Dan Murphy is a food-industry journalist and commentator.