Fool me once — shame on you. Fool me twice — shame on me. What happens after the fourth time? That’s the situation facing the United States with the May 18 ruling handed down from the World Trade Organization (WTO) regarding the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin-labeling (COOL) law. The ruling, once again, found COOL to be in violation of international trade obligations, paving the way for billions in economic trade sanctions to be imposed by our nation’s largest trading partners on U.S. products ranging from live cattle and beef (and live hogs and pork) to wine, pasta, certain meats and more.
While it has no doubt grabbed headlines this month, this final decision, which said the original WTO ruling “did not err on nearly all circumstances,” should come as no surprise to anyone. Originally included in the 2002 farm bill, amended in the 2008 farm bill and initially implemented in 2009, COOL has been the focus of a WTO lawsuit for more than five years. Shortly after being implemented, Canada and Mexico established a case against the United States in November 2009. Since then, through a series of rulings, appeals and more rulings, the WTO has repeatedly (four times to be exact) ruled that certain COOL requirements discriminate against foreign livestock.
As the WTO has considered the issue, the law has been in place here at home. Consumers have, in the past, expressed a strong desire to know where their food comes from, but they haven’t demonstrated that desire with their wallets. Like it or not, economic analyses and studies through the years (see page 28 for more on a recent economic analysis on COOL) have shown time and again that neither producer nor consumer has benefited from the labeling law. In fact, a recent survey conducted by the International Food Information Council Foundation found that country-of-origin information ranked ninth in a list of 11 pieces of labeling information that consumers consider when choosing a food product. According to the survey, the use of COOL labels has declined from 29 percent in 2013 to 15 percent in 2015.
So what’s next?
Instead of wasting more time in international trade wars with Canada and Mexico, it’s time — it’s past time — to fix the issue so we can all get on with our lives. Canada and Mexico aren’t wasting time. Their governments issued a joint statement shortly after the May 18 ruling saying they “will be seeking authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports.” Not they might. Not they’ll go think about it and talk about it for a few more years. They will. And that could happen this summer.
If the United States were wise, it would act also. After all, bilateral trade in 2014 totaled $658 billion with Canada and $534 billion with Mexico. Thankfully the leaders of the House and Senate Agriculture Committees, Chairman Pat Roberts (R-Kan.) on the Senate side and Chairman Mike Conaway (R-Texas) in the House, aren’t the waiting-around type. They’re ready to act. Conaway said he’s ready to resolve the issue “once and for all” and scheduled a hearing to consider a legislative fix two days after the WTO ruling.
If consumers truly value country-of-origin information, they will start showing that with their purchasing decisions. Until that time, however, it’s time to quit playing the fool and repeal COOL.