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Should Canadians Care About Country of Origin Labeling? September 14, 2010

Posted by gfsa in Food Thoughts.

Want to know where your food comes from? That may depend on the outcome of the WTO Country-of-origin labelling dispute involving Canada and the United States

On September 16 the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute resolution panel will begin to hear arguments from representatives of Canada and the United States over US measures to label meat according to its country of origin, a measure which Canada contends violates the rules of international trade. The Canadian government’s opposition to this measure and much of the Canadian media coverage of the US policy on country-of-origin labeling (COOL) have missed the mark. Why? Because they reduce this issue to a knee-jerk protectionist reaction by the US Congress to the demands of a small bunch of U. S. livestock producers. They ignore the reality that most Canadians like most Americans want to know where their food comes from and want those who process and sell the food to be required to label it in terms of its origin. The outcome of this dispute, therefore, has a direct impact on our rights as food eaters to know where our food comes from.

The battle over country of origin labeling in the United States involved an eight-year political struggle, with major retailers like Wal-Mart and food-processing corporations like ConAgra spending millions of dollars on more than 100 lobbyists to stop COOL–first in the 2002 Farm Bill and then in the 2008 Food Conservation and Energy Act.

On the pro-COOL side in the U. S., rarely mentioned in the media here, were more than 100 groups, including some smaller livestock producers and farmers as well as local food activists, environmental and consumer organizations like Public Citizen and the Consumers’ Union, the respected publisher of Consumer Reports.

The Bush administration opposed COOL, as did the U. S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) which tried hard to scare American consumers into believing that COOL would dramatically raise food prices. Despite their deep pockets, the opponents of COOL failed and it was embedded in two major U. S. farm bills. COOL opponents then changed tactics and, with the help of the USDA, tried to delay the implementation of the law but COOL has the support of U. S. President Barack Obama and his secretary of agriculture Tom Vilsack, who appears committed to tightening up the law so that American consumers know where animals that are the source of their meat were born, fattened and slaughtered. When he made that clear, Canada went to the WTO to complain.

Yet, if you asked, I am sure many Canadians would also like to see mandatory country-of-origin labeling of their food. Few Canadians realize our country has fought mandatory labelling of food in terms of its country of origin. It has also opposed any mandatory labelling of food derived from use of genetically modified organisms. The meetings of the bodies which set food labelling standards, the Codex Alimentarius, and the WTO’s Technical Barriers to Trade Committee, receive little media coverage, even though the Codex Committee on Food Labelling meets annually in Canada, is chaired by a Canadian, and is open to anyone to observe.

Had the media been there, they would have been able to tell Canadians that our country has argued that consumers do not have a right to know where their food comes or how it was produced unless agribusiness decides it is in their market interest to tell us. Requiring COOL food labelling, Canadian officials claim, is a violation of trade rules. They have also suggested that Canadians by and large do not care where their food comes from and purchase food based largely on its quality and price despite studies which indicated that “the role of place as an indicator of quality distinctiveness is increasing in importance” and the local food movement is growing rapidly. Consumers increasingly associate local food with freshness, low energy consumption and a host of health and environmental benefits. The very success of campaigns to safeguard access to, and support for, local food shows that this is the case.

Despite this evidence of a growing consumer concern about the origins of food and a desire to know more about their food, Canadian officials went so far as to claim in their submission to the USDA opposing COOL that U. S. and Canadian governments had been working hard for the past 18 months to “make national origin irrelevant in business and consumer decisions”–a fact that local food activists might find disturbing.

Perhaps it is time, as the Canadian National Farmers Union has suggested, for Canada to embrace COOL. There is no question that Canadian livestock producers have suffered recently, but is the source of their problems regulations like COOL or the fact that three or four huge corporations control 80 to 90 per cent of the meat packing on each side of the border, leaving livestock producers as captive suppliers with no market power? The level of dependence on U. S. market access leaves Canadian livestock producers especially vulnerable.

One thing is clear, COOL will not go away. Just this past March a committee of the European Parliament has also endorsed Country of Origin Labeling. The EU and a number of countries are watching the US-Canada dispute at the WTO very closely. So should we. We should also make it clear to our government that we too want to have the right to know where our food comes from.

For information on the WTO process of dispute resolution and the US-Canada Cool case http://www.wto.org/english/tratop_e/dispu_e/cases_e/ds386_e.htm
To voice concerns about COOL and trade rules the International trade minister Peter VanLoan can be reached at VanLoan.P@parl.gc.ca
The Consumers Union in the US has a lot of discussion of issues around food labeling and COOL see: http://www.consumersunion.org/
The National Farmers Union in Canada supports COOL and has a number of briefs that address issues of local food and labeling see www.nfu.ca

Submitted by: Elizabeth Smythe, professor of political science at Concordia University College of Alberta in Edmonton.  Elizabeth can be reached at elizabeth.smythe@concordia.ab.ca



1. Rene Michalak - September 14, 2010

Thanks for posting this – we need to be aware of these ‘high-level’ issues when developing local food systems. More and more, there’s overarching policing going on to force factory farming regulations onto local, independent efforts:

2. Anna V - September 14, 2010

Great info. Thanks for synthesizing this issue and connecting so many dots!

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