A group of panelists reviewing the U.S. country-of-origin labeling rule in front of the Senate Ag Committee on Thursday didn't all agree on the next steps for the rule, but showed understanding that a deal must be reached to satisfy World Trade Organization requirements.
The rule, which requires labeling on retail packages of certain meats indicating where the originating animal was born, raised and slaughtered, was ruled non-compliant with WTO trade rules in May 2015.
The two countries that brought the original complaint against COOL to the WTO, Mexico and Canada, have formally indicated that without full repeal of the COOL rule, they will entertain tariff retaliation.
The retaliatory measures are estimated at more than $3 billion, though a final number still must be approved through the WTO arbitration process.
The COOL law, which already has been repealed by the House of Representatives, could face a different fate in the Senate as Ag Committee Ranking Member Sen. Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on Wednesday proposed a draft text that would remove COOL labeling and replace it with a voluntary labeling program.
"Both sides of this debate—those who want to repeal COOL and those who want keep COOL—have been dug in for a long time on this issue," Stabenow said during her opening statement in the hearing Thursday. "And that entrenchment has not produced a path forward."
Stabenow, who supports the consumer information element of the rule, said her proposal includes a voluntary "Product of U.S." label for beef and pork that would be similar to the voluntary Canadian label.
"It is my hope that this simple, WTO-consistent approach to addressing this dispute will help us find a solution that benefits American consumers and agriculture – while also finding a pathway forward," she said.
According to the Senate Ag Committee, the only mandatory labeling in Canada is for imported meat already in retail packaging. Other meat labeling is voluntary, and allows feeder cattle in the country for more than 60 days to be a "product of Canada." It does not indicate born, raised and slaughtered, therefore eliminating the need for segregation during handling.
The panel invited to testify on COOL, and Stabenow's proposal, included a cross-section of supporters, reformers and opponents of the rule.
Speakers included: Barry Carpenter, CEO, North American Meat Institute; Craig Hill, president, Iowa Farm Bureau Federation; Leo McDonnell, executive officer and director emeritus for the United States Cattlemen’s Association; Jaret Moyer, president, Kansas Livestock Association; Jim Trezise, president, New York Wine & Grape Foundation; and Chris Cuddy, senior vice president, Archer Daniels Midland Company, Decatur, Ill.
Several of the panelists, when prodded on the adoption of Canada's voluntary labeling policy, seemed uncertain.
McDonnell, who runs a beef bull breeding business and a herd of Angus cattle in North Dakota, said adopting Canada's policy wouldn't be enough to showcase U.S. beef quality. He supports the COOL rule as it stands.
With Canada's voluntary label and without indicating the origins of the animal along all phases of production, "we will lose the integrity of the U.S. beef label," McDonnell said.
Others expressed concern that the policy wouldn't be enough to appease Canada – and could be too little, too late.
"I think we really need to go above and beyond" to make sure Canada and Mexico are happy, said Moyer, a COOL opponent. He said it could be the case that adopting their standard relieves retaliatory concerns, but "I don't want to take the risk," he said.
Moyer's sentiment also was reflected in the positions of Trezise and Cuddy, who both said the first step should be repeal to avoid retaliation, with a second step of exploring voluntary labeling options.
According to a letter sent from Canadian Ag Minister Gerry Ritz this week to Stabenow and Senate Ag Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., repeal is the option for Canada.
In the letter, Ritz said the country supports the House's repeal of COOL and "other approaches such as a legislated 'voluntary' label or generic label are not satisfactory outcomes for Canada."
But Stabenow said whatever a person's side of the COOL debate, it's time to focus on a bipartisan solution for quick action.
"Everyone who does not have a dog in this fight -- or maybe I should say a steer or a pig – I would urge you to come down on the side of urging us to … find a bipartisan solution so we can get this done quickly," Stabenow said.
Catch the full Senate Ag COOL hearing and Q&A with panelists on the Senate Ag Committee website.