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Organic Consumers Association

WTO Not So COOL: Rules Against Popular U.S. Meat Labeling Law

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The World Trade Organization (WTO) issued a final ruling today against the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law. This popular pro-consumer policy, which informs shoppers where meat and other foods were raised or grown, enjoys the support of 93% of Americans, according to a 2010 Consumers Union poll. Now Congress must gut or change the law to avoid the application of punitive trade sanctions.

WTO vs. Consumers

The original meat labeling law passed as part of the 2002 farm bill and was expanded in the 2008 farm bill to apply to other foods like fresh fruits, nuts, and vegetables. Canada, Mexico, and several other countries filed a complaint regarding the policy with the WTO in December 2008 calling the popular consumer measure a "disguised" barrier to trade. The organization initially ruled in their favor in November 2011, but the U.S. filed an appeal in March 2012. Today, a WTO  tribunal made up of three trade officials ruled that the U.S. law is a violation of the WTO's legally binding "Technical Barrier to Trade" agreement. The ruling is final. If the United States does not gut or change the law, the WTO can apply punitive sanctions, usually in the form of tariffs on U.S. exports. The ruling also casts into doubt the WT0-legality of other popular labeling laws.

Last week, the Obama administration invited Canada and Mexico to join the latest trade pact under negotiation, the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), without an agreement to drop their attack on the popular U.S. consumer labeling. Lori Wallach, director of Global Trade Watch at the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen, commented: "The American public is desperately waiting for President Barack Obama to show some negotiating savvy, and to start fulfilling his campaign pledges and reconsider the so-called 'trade' model that his administration is pushing with the TPP."

The ruling is the WTO's third this year against U.S. consumer protection laws. In May, it ruled against U.S. dolphin-safe tuna labels, again, in a case that has been dragging on for over a decade. In April, it ruled against a U.S. ban on clove, candy, and cola-flavored cigarettes. "These three rulings -- with the WTO slapping down safe hamburgers, Flipper and children's smoking prevention policy -- make it increasingly clear to the public that the WTO is leading a race to the bottom in consumer protection," said Todd Tucker, research director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch. 


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