WASHINGTON – Under threat of trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico, the House has voted to to repeal a law requiring country-of-origin labels on packages of beef, pork and poultry.
The World Trade Organization rejected a U.S. appeal last month, ruling the labels that say where animals were born, raised and slaughtered are discriminatory against the two U.S. border countries. Both have said they plan to ask the WTO for permission to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on American goods.
The House voted 300-131 to repeal labels that tell consumers what countries the meat is from -- for example, "born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States" or "born, raised and slaughtered in the United States."
The WTO ruled against the labels last year. The Obama administration has already revised the labels once to try to comply with previous WTO rulings. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it's up to Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation from the two countries.
The law was initially written at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by consumer advocates who say it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. Supporters have called on the U.S. government to negotiate with Canada and Mexico to find labels acceptable to all countries.
Rep. Marcy Kaptur, D-Ohio, said repeal would be premature, adding, "Our people deserve a right to know where their food is produced and where it comes from."
Meat processors who buy animals from abroad as well as many others in the U.S. meat industry have called for a repeal of the law they have fought for years, including unsuccessfully in federal court. They say it's burdensome and costly for producers and retailers.
House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has long backed the meat industry's call for repeal.
"Although some consumers desire (country-of-origin labeling) information, there is no evidence to conclude that this mandatory labeling translates into market-measurable increases in consumer demand for beef, pork or chicken," Conaway said on the House floor.
House Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, said after the vote that the last thing American farmers need "is for Congress to sit idly by as international bureaucrats seek to punish them through retaliatory trade policies that could devastate agriculture as well as other industries."
The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. The chicken industry has said the labeling doesn't make much sense for poultry farmers because the majority of chicken consumed in the United States is hatched, raised and processed domestically.
The legislation would leave in place country-of-origin labeling requirements for several other commodities, including lamb, venison, seafood, fruits and vegetables and some nuts.
Canada and Mexico have opposed the labeling because it causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin -- a costly process that has led some U.S. companies to stop buying exports.
The two countries have said that if they are allowed by the WTO, they may impose retaliatory measures such as tariffs against a variety of U.S. imports. Their list includes food items like beef, pork, cheese, corn, cherries, maple syrup, chocolate and pasta, plus non-agricultural goods such as mattresses, wooden furniture and jewelry. The retaliatory measures could total more than $3 billion, the countries said.
Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws. The original labels created by USDA were less specific, saying a product was a "product of U.S." or "product of U.S. and Canada." The WTO rejected those labels in 2012, and USDA tried again with the more detailed labels a year later. The WTO rejected those revised rules last year, and the United States filed one last appeal, rejected in May by the WTO.
On the Senate side, Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling, though he has yet to introduce a bill.
After the House vote, Roberts said repeal "remains the surest way to protect the American economy" from retaliatory tariffs.