WASHINGTON — House Republicans are hoping to repeal a law requiring country-of-origin labels on packages of meat to avoid costly trade retaliation from Canada and Mexico.
The World Trade Organization ruled against the law last month, saying the labels that say where animals were born, raised and slaughtered are discriminatory toward the two U.S. border countries. Canada and Mexico have said they will now ask the WTO for permission to impose billions of dollars in tariffs on U.S. goods.
The House on Wednesday began debate on legislation that would repeal the law for beef, pork and poultry. A vote was expected later in the day.
The labels 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 and then denied a U.S. appeal last month. 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 now up to Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation from the two neighbor 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."
Many in the U.S. meat industry — including meat processors who buy animals from abroad — have called for a repeal of the law, which they have fought for years, including unsuccessfully in federal court.
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.
The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, also repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. The chicken industry has said the law doesn't make much sense for poultry farmers because the majority of chicken consumed in the United States is hatched, raised and processed here.
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 law because it causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin — a costly process that has forced 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 cost the United States more than $3.7 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." 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, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas also has said he will move quickly to respond to the WTO ruling, but he has yet to introduce a bill.
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