Opinion

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Uncommon Ground

Not COOL

People have a right to know where their food is produced and what’s in it

The World Trade Organization recently issued its ruling that said labels stating the country of origin of meat products sold in the U.S. are an unfair trade barrier to places like Canada and Mexico. The WTO, led by a man from Brazil, said that tariffs may now be imposed by other countries onto some American exported goods unless changes occur.

In 2005, former Gov. Brian Schweitzer requested a bill in the Montana Legislature mandating that meat sold in the state but produced in another country must be labeled to indicate the country of origin. The country of origin labeling (COOL) bill overwhelmingly passed the Legislature and was carried by former Rep. Bob Bergren and then state Sen. Jon Tester.

In Congress, Tester supported the federal approach to country of origin labeling of meat, seafood, produce and fruit. COOL became the law as part of the 2008 Farm Bill.

For now, the WTO ruling only applies to red meat. Canada led objections at the WTO that included countries like China, New Zealand, Australia, Brazil and Guatemala. Apparently many feel it’s unfair for American consumers to know where meat is produced.

WTO cited a 1994 General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade update. The updated GATT agreement was under former President Bill Clinton. The agreement with 122 other nations created the WTO.

It’s ironic that a 20-year-old international trade agreement was used to disallow American consumers’ the right to know where food is produced. In a joint statement Canada and Mexico said, “We call on the United States to repeal COOL legislation and comply with its international obligations.”

House Agricultural Committee Chairman Mike Conaway from Texas said that he favors repeal of COOL and moved to pass a bill to fix the ensuing trade war by removing Americans’ right to know where meat is raised.

Time will tell how Congress bows to international trade winds, but food labels have become a thorny political issue. Intrinsically consumers have just as much right to know where their food is grown, as what’s in their food.

Congress is deciding whether to grant President Barack Obama the right to fast track negotiations with Asian countries on a Trans Pacific Partnership trade agreement. TPP is so far a proposed 12-country regulatory treaty with places like Australia, Canada, Mexico, Japan and Taiwan.

Critics to TPP, like former Secretary of Labor Robert Reich in the Clinton Administration, have been busy skewering the secret trade negotiations. Reich claims that TPP gives power for multinational corporations to question any U.S. law that they find objectionable before another secret tribunal.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said that Congress would pass the TPP fast-track authorization before Memorial Day. TPP is the latest flashpoint for food. Many critics say that TPP will promote bioengineered foods in countries that ban it or require the labeling of GMO ingredients.

If future international trade settlements before a tribunal on bioengineered food prohibits labels for countries that mandate transparency, like America’s country of origin meat law, many countries would rightly protest.

TPP may trade more Montana wheat or beef to far away places. It may push new growth regulators, already approved on some Canadian wheat but not in the U.S., onto places like Montana. Who knows?

Small farmers who spend decades working the soil often must compete with multinational-agribusiness for a share of the food market. Much produce like tomatoes and chard is grown in far away places like Mexico where the minimum wage is less than $5 per day and environmental laws are lax.

Hopefully Obama learned from past trade agreements and makes time to talk with farmers like Tester. People have a right to know where their food is produced and what’s in it. That seems fair.