The U.S.'s neighbors are two of its biggest markets for pork exports – Mexico is number two and Canada is number three. However, since Country of Origin Labeling first took effect in late 2009 after being introduced as part of the 2002 Farm Bill, the National Pork Producers Council says it has had a negative impact on trade with these countries.
Following the World Trade Organization's ruling in 2012 that certain COOL requirements discriminated against imported livestock from Mexico and Canada, USDA issued its final rule on Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling to comply with the WTO.
The final rule, which went into effect in November 2013, requires specifying the country or countries in which the animal was born, raised, and slaughtered.
However, John Weber, NPPC vice president and Dysart, Iowa, pork producer, says the 2013 rule is more restrictive than the 2009 rule.
"Solutions to this problem aren't easy," Weber says. "But I compare it to the auto industry. When you buy a General Motors product, I guarantee there are products in that car from at least a dozen other countries."
So, some pork is from Canadian pigs exported to the U.S. for feeding and slaughter. "We have a lot of producers in Iowa that love to feed Canadian pigs. When the rules came into place, they had trouble marketing those pigs. The packers had to set aside time to market those pigs or didn't market them altogether," Weber says. "In 2007 we were importing about 10 million pigs from Canada. Today that's about 5 million pigs."
The problem with COOL
Weber says there is no problem with informing consumers where food comes from, but certain information is excessive and burdensome – the final rule requires multiple labels and segregation of products at the retail and packing level. "We really feel it put an undue burden on the packing industry," Weber says. "To have the country of birth and country it was raised and slaughtered in on the label is even more restrictive."
"The reason we think this needs to be fixed is the original label says 'born, raised, and slaughtered.' As somebody who does the family grocery shopping, I don't need to see that it's slaughtered," adds Audrey Adamson, NPPC vice president for domestic policy issues. "We think Congress has to step in and start to tell consumers what they need to know without causing a burden on producers."
Further impact on trade
The World Trade Organization is reviewing the current ruling, and will announce whether the U.S. is in compliance with its trade obligations later this summer. This decision will likely be appealed by whoever loses. If the final WTO ruling is against the U.S., Mexico and Canada would have the right to retaliate excessively high tariffs could be placed on agricultural and manufactured products.
In this case, officials say pork would almost certainly be included on the list of products – similar the 2010 NAFTA trucking incident.
"This is not a meat issue anymore. This is an international trade issue," Adamson says, adding this will include products numerous U.S. products, from meat to furniture to wine. "They are going to take the damage done to their farmers and apply that amount to retaliation tariffs."
"We need to live up to our own obligations under the WTO," she says. "We can't be poking our best trading partners, Canada and Mexico by not living up to our trading obligations."
This could impact more than trade relations with North American countries, Adamson says. Failing to comply with international trade obligations portrays a negative image of the U.S., which is currently in the middle of Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations with countries like Japan – the number one export market for U.S. Pork.
"We need to be seen as a reliable trading partner with these countries," she says. "Right now, we aren't being good actors."