Washington, D.C. – Today the United States Trade Representative published its objectives for renegotiating the North American Free Trade Agreement, paving the way for the start of formal negotiations with Canada and Mexico in just thirty days. Loaded with vague references and technocratic jargon, the objectives bear little resemblance to Trump’s campaign bluster. They are also remarkable for what they leave out. Namely, USTR has no plans to salvage Americans’ right to decide for themselves how meat is labeled in this country.
Until 2015, the U.S. Department of Agriculture required retailers to label beef and pork products with information on where the animals in those products were born, raised, and slaughtered. Mandatory country-of-origin labeling, or COOL, was extremely popular, with poll after poll showing vast majorities of Americans in favor of requiring origin information on meats. Canada and Mexico, however, sued the United States at the World Trade Organization (WTO), arguing that the labeling regulations were an unlawful trade barrier. They won, and Congress folded. Defenders of the appropriations rider that repealed COOL, like House Committee on Agriculture Chairman Michael Conaway, argued that repeal was necessary to avoid “retaliation by Canada and Mexico” in the form of “economically devastating tariffs.”
“The WTO ruling gave members of Congress cover to push through a politically unpopular policy,” explained Thomas Gremillion, Director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “They were never able to sell the idea that keeping track of country-of-origin is just too expensive, but avoiding trade sanctions had a broader appeal.”
Of course, nothing prevented the United States from negotiating directly with Canada and Mexico to get around the lawsuit. But focused on passage of the TransPacific Partnership, the Obama Administration allowed the WTO ruling to stand, despite having spent the better part of a decade litigating the case before international tribunals.
“Presumably, the decision not to negotiate a fix had a lot to do with showing the United States can play by the rules,” said Gremillion. “But now that the Administration is opening up these agreements to new negotiations, leaving COOL out of the mix is outrageous.”
The decision seems at odds with President Trump’s campaign rhetoric on trade, which emphasized protecting American sovereignty. For example, Trump pledged to withdraw the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership because the deal would “undermine our independence” and “create a new international commission that makes decisions the American people can’t veto.” According to Gremillion, however, COOL stands as “the most explicit example ever of an international trade body nullifying a U.S. law.”
“American farmers and ranchers make high quality products, and consumers want to support them,” said Gremillion. “But our trade deal with Mexico and Canada denies consumers the information they need to support higher labor, environmental and food safety standards. Why should trade rules prevent Americans from knowing where their meat comes from?”
Contact: Thomas Gremillion, 202-939-1010
The Consumer Federation of America is an association of more than 250 non-profit consumer groups that, since 1968, has sought to advance the consumer interest through research, education, and advocacy.