Mexico, Canada Mount WTO Challenge Against U.S. Food Labeling Law

Canadian and Mexican officials are presenting their case this week to a World Trade Organization dispute panel, arguing that American country-of-origin labeling laws are illegal under the international trade organization’s rules.

Canadian officials are prepared to argue that their domestic beef industry has suffered an estimated loss of $300 million since the rules were instituted. At the same time, they claim that live hog exports have been cut in half because of the rules.

“A lot of our case is showing the economic analysis that demonstrates that Canadian livestock were disadvantaged in the U.S., with the respect to trade flows and even if trade wasn’t reduced, it’s now occurring at a lower price, so it has affected the profitability and price we get in the U.S. market,” John Masswohl, director of international relations with the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, told The Portage News.

The rules were passed into law in 2002, but did not go into full effect until 2008. The new law requires labeling on raw beef, veal, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm raised fish and shellfish, peanuts, pecans, macadamia nuts, whole ginseng, and fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables.

Both of America’s North American neighbors are claiming that the labeling requirements are unfair trade barriers that impose increased costs on their food exports. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association last June claimed that the law has cost the sector $400 million, or $90 per head of cattle. In December 2008, Mexico suspended purchases of U.S. meat products from 30 American plants operating in 14 different states as a retaliatory measure.

U.S. lawmakers have said that there is nothing illegal about country-of-origin labeling, pointing out that many other nations have similar programs that are much more stringent, including both Canada and Mexico. In all, over 45 nations have similar labeling requirements to alert customers as to the origin of their food products.

A sense of urgency to implement country-of-origin labeling on food products arose after a recent string of food scares in the U.S. In 2006 and 2007 thousands of cats and dogs died after consuming poisoned pet food imported from China that had been contaminated with the toxic chemical melamine. Salmonella-tainted peppers from Mexico left many consumers ill. And more than 20 countries and markets have banned or recalled milk products from China because of melamine contamination.

The U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that every year 76 million Americans are afflicted by food poisoning. Of those, an estimated 5,000 will die each year. The Trust for America’s Health found that foodborne illnesses caused by major pathogens cost $44 billion annually in medical care and lost productivity.

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