Congress and the president have just caved in and gutted the Country of Origin Labeling Act (COOL) removing the requirement that meat must be labeled with its source. Now meat from China, Mexico, Argentina or any other country can be sold in American grocery stores with no country of origin labeling.
The dispute started about five years ago when Canada and Mexico filed a complaint with the World Trade Organization. They argued that U.S. law required their meat to be labeled “product of Mexico” or “Canada” was a barrier to free trade. Most countries of the world require similar labeling, so this complaint seemed weak. Canada argued “there is no logic to the proposition that consumers interested in origin information care less when buying ground meat, or when buying meat in restaurants, in butcher shops or in the form of processed food.” Canada’s basic argument was that the U.S. law did not apply to restaurants or for processed foods (where half of all food dollars are spent) and thus the law should be thrown out.
The WTO bought into Mexico and Canada’s bizarre argument and has attempted to overrule the laws of the United States. Congress gave in because it feared Canadian and Mexican retaliation. The U.S. is the strongest nation on earth in terms of economic and military strength, yet our legislators flinch at the very slightest hint of a trade war. The United States should not allow its consumer protection laws to be overturned by foreign nations or by the World Trade Organization. President Obama said recently, “critics warn that parts of this deal (Trans Pacific Partnership) would undermine American regulation -- food safety, worker safety, even financial regulations. They’re making this stuff up. This is just not true. No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws.” Sadly, President Obama just signed the budget deal that included the WTO’s forced change of our laws.
The WTO is illegitimate
The World Trade Organization sounds like a legitimate international organization, but it is not. The WTO does not have a permanent judiciary; it selects “judges” who are practicing attorneys to hear disputes. In the Country of Origin Labeling Act case, the WTO selected Ricardo Ramírez-Hernández as the appellate panel chairman. A Mexican national, Ramírez-Hernández is a lawyer who has represented Mexico in trade matters. He has an obvious conflict of interest since Mexico was a party to this case and he should have been disqualified as an appellate jurist. In U.S. courts, Ramírez-Hernández would never have been allowed to participate as a judge.
The WTO has a history of ruling against the United States. Another American consumer law that ran afoul of the WTO was the Dolphin Safe Tuna Act. This law was passed to allow tuna fisherman to use a “Dolphin-Safe” label on its cans of tuna fish so that consumers could, if they so desired, purchase tuna fished in a more humane manner.
Nothing in the law was designed to harm fisherman from other countries. This labeling by fisherman was voluntary, but those using the Dolphin-Safe label had to meet strict standards.
The third U.S. law, Family Smoking Prevention and Tobacco Control Act, to be rejected by the WTO was a law outlawing flavored cigarettes. The purpose of this law was to prevent children from getting hooked on cinnamon, bubblegum or lemon flavored cigarettes. Indonesia challenged this law because the law prevented clove cigarettes from being sold in the United States.
The United States has lost all three of these cases. None of these cases involved any real barriers to international trade. The common thread was that these U.S. consumer protection laws had extremely minor impact on foreign nations. It is apparent that the WTO “judges” from less democratic nations do not care about the protection of consumers, children or dolphins.
My response to the WTO and to Congress’s cave-in is to amend COOL to include restaurants and processed foods. This totally undercuts Canada and Mexico’s argument that since COOL applied only to half of our food supply, it cannot withstand scrutiny.
For example, if a consumer were to order shrimp at a Red Lobster restaurant, the patron would know if it comes from Thailand (or some other Asian-Pacific nations), where recent reports have shown that these crustaceans harvested from those countries may be contaminated. I call my proposal COOLER: Country of Origin Labeling Expansion and Reform Act. The recent action by Congress will now allow ground beef not to be labeled even though the WTO decision did not apply to ground beef. The international beef lobbyists obviously got their hands on the legislation just before Congress put it into the recent budget act to keep the government funded in 2016.
COOLER would apply the Country of Origin Labeling Act to all restaurants. Hamburgers being served at McDonalds and other restaurants would have to be labeled on their menu and menu boards as to their country of origin. Currently, some high-end seafood restaurants such as McCormick & Schmick already list the country of origin information on their menus. COOLER would also fill in the gaps left in the original COOL legislation to cover cooked and processed meats, turkey and duck as well as all imported nuts.
More than ninety percent of American consumers want to know the country of origin of the food that they purchase and ingest. COOLER will give consumers and restaurant patrons the knowledge and ability to avoid consuming foods from countries that they don’t trust with food safety.
Joseph is chairman of the Made in the USA Foundation.