November 21, 2011
The US "country of origin" labels on cattle and hog exports from Canada and Mexico violate international rules, the WTO ruled Friday (Nov 18).
In late 2009, the Geneva-based World Trade Organisation opened an investigation into US labelling rules at the request of Canada and Mexico.
The "country of origin" labelling regulation took effect in 2008. Canada and Mexico each claimed their livestock industries were hurt by a sharp drop in US cattle and hog imports because the labelling raised the costs and discouraged imports of their produce.
The USDA required US packers to track and notify customers of the origin of meat and other agricultural products at every stage of production, including retail.
But the panel said that requirement did not qualify as consumer labelling about the origin of produce and could therefore be considered an unnecessary extra cost.
Instead, the panel said, the US violated WTO rules because Canadian and Mexican livestock imports got "treatment less favourable than" US domestic livestock.
The US Trade Representative's office said it was considering all options, including appealing the decision. But spokeswoman Andrea Mead said the US was pleased the WTO panel "affirmed the right of the US to require country of origin labelling for meat products."
The Washington-based advocacy group Public Citizen denounced the ruling as another ill-advised WTO move against popular US consumer and environmental measures, like the WTO's decisions on US "dolphin-safe" labels and on a US ban on some candy and flavoured cigarettes.
Lori Wallach, director of the group's Global Trade Watch Programme, said the latest ruling will see "major agribusiness corporations being free to sell mystery meat in the US" without adequate safeguards.
Mexico also said its cattle exports to the US-more than half a billion dollars a year - were hurt unfairly by what it called the "protectionist" labelling.