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Canada and Mexico contend that labeling requirements put their cows and pigs at a disadvantage because U.S. meatpackers don’t want to go through the hassle and expense of tracking imported animals. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

Canada and Mexico contend that labeling requirements put their cows and pigs at a disadvantage because U.S. meatpackers don’t want to go through the hassle and expense of tracking imported animals. (Photo: J. Scott Applewhite/AP)

WTO Ruling on Meat Labels Exemplifies Corporate Profits Trumping Democracy

'Country of origin labels' championed by consumer safety and animal welfare advocates were ruled as having a negative impact on large North American meat-packing companies

Jon Queally

In a decision food safety and consumer advocates are calling a blow to animal welfare, environmental standards, and democracy, the World Trade Organization on Monday ruled that U.S. labels on packaged meat indicating where cows, chicken or other animals were born, raised and slaughtered are in violation of international trade pacts because they place foreign imports at an economic disadvantage.

"This is a chilling reminder that our very democracy is at stake in these trade deals. Congress should reject calls to Fast Track new trade deals to maintain its legislative autonomy, rather than creating new trade tribunals that can wipe out U.S. laws." —Wenonah HauterThe WTO ruling—which is final and not subject to further appeal—is a seen as victory for the U.S. meat-packing industry, which has characterized the "country of origin labels" (COOL) as burdensome and repeatedly challenged them in court. But the decision was decried by critics who say it highlights the far-reaching implications of so-called "free trade" deals which allow multinational corporations and business interests to challenge domestic regulations that threaten their bottom line.

In this case, the WTO challenge was brought by Mexico and Canada, on behalf of their respective meat industries, against the U.S. government for violations of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) by arguing the U.S. labeling regime negatively impacted their ability to compete in the lucrative American market.

"This is just the latest example of how multinational companies use the global trade system to attack basic protections for U.S. consumers," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch, in a statement responding to the ruling. "The meat industry has been trying – and failing – for years to get rid of COOL through the U.S. system, so it had to use unaccountable, unelected trade officials at the WTO to do its dirty work."

Debbie Barker, international and trade program director at Center for Food Safety (CFS), called the ruling a "grave blow" for a consumers who have the right to know where their food comes from.

"Our food safety policies in this country should not be dictated by a closed-door trade tribunal," Barker said. "The WTO has essentially overruled our democratic law making process, which demonstrates how trade agreements can weaken U.S. food safety standards."

According to the Canadian Press:

Canada and Mexico argued the requirement created costly overhead, and logistical problems for an integrated industry where livestock might cross the border multiple times.

The Canadian government argued that it was actually a protectionist measure, designed to discourage imports of foreign meat while doing nothing to benefit food safety.

It blamed the measure for a drastic decline in Canadian meat exports to the U.S. in recent years, and had repeatedly warned that it would retaliate if successful at the WTO.

However, according to expert critics like Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen's Global Trade Watch, what Monday's ruling really shows is how international trade deals like NAFTA can trump the will of the American public and Congress.

Though NAFTA was signed into law by President Bill Clinton nearly twenty years ago, the Obama administration is currently pushing two new trade deals— the Trans-Atlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) with European Union nations and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TTP) with eleven Pacific Rim nations. And even as Obama and other proponents of TPP and TTIP have repeatedly argued these new deals won’t have the power to overturn or circumvent U.S. laws and regulations, the labeling ruling offers a precise example of how the mechanisms contained within such deals can do exactly that.

"Today’s WTO ruling, which effectively orders the U.S. government to stop providing consumers basic information about where their food comes from, offers a clear example of why so many Americans and members of Congress oppose the Fast Tracking of more so-called 'trade' pacts that threaten commonsense consumer safeguards."
—Lori Wallach, Public Citizen
Public Citizen cited a speech earlier this month when President Obama championed the pending deals and dismissed their detractors when he said, "Critics warn that parts of this deal would undermine American regulation – food safety, worker safety, even financial regulations. They’re making this stuff up. This is just not true. No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws." In fact, according to Wallach, Monday's development on the COOL standards is a direct rebuttal to that claim.

As the Center for Food Safety noted:

Promoters of Fast Track and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) have consistently said that fears over potential negative impacts to food safety and other consumer safeguards are overblown. But this WTO ruling further demonstrates that consumer group concerns that trade agreements such as the TPP are indeed legitimate. The WTO case was adjudicated via a dispute resolution system allowing member nation-states to sue one another over domestic policies that are believed to inhibit trade. Alarmingly, TPP’s investor-state provision would go even a step further by allowing corporations to directly sue countries for policies they believe impede profits.

"The president says 'we're making stuff up,' about trade deals undermining our consumer and environmental policies," said Wallach, "but today we have the latest WTO ruling against a popular U.S. consumer policy. Today’s WTO ruling, which effectively orders the U.S. government to stop providing consumers basic information about where their food comes from, offers a clear example of why so many Americans and members of Congress oppose the Fast Tracking of more so-called 'trade' pacts that threaten commonsense consumer safeguards."

In her comments, Hauter argued the same. "The COOL case proves that trade agreements can and do trump U.S. laws," she said. "This is a chilling reminder that our very democracy is at stake in these trade deals. Congress should reject calls to Fast Track new trade deals to maintain its legislative autonomy, rather than creating new trade tribunals that can wipe out U.S. laws."

Wallach indicated that the only up-side to the action taken by the WTO on Monday is how it bolsters the case by the thousands of groups and millions of Americans, and their allies around the world, who will continue to fight against the approval of both TPP and TTIP in the weeks and months ahead. "The corporations lobbying to Fast Track the TPP must be groaning right now," she said, "as this ruling against a popular consumer protection in the name of 'free trade' spotlights exactly why there is unprecedented opposition to more of these deals."


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