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Nov. 18, 2011 

WTO Rules Against Country-of-Origin Meat Labeling Law: Third Ruling Against U.S. Consumer Safeguards in 2011 

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WASHINGTON, D.C. – The World Trade Organization’s (WTO) ruling today against another highly popular U.S. consumer policy – country-of-origin labeling (COOL) for meat cuts and products – will only intensify public opposition to more of the same backwards trade pacts, Public Citizen said. A panel report released today announced that Mexico and Canada have succeeded in their WTO attack on the labeling rule; today’s WTO ruling is the third this year against popular U.S. consumer or environmental measures.

“Today’s ruling makes very clear that these so-called ‘trade’ pacts have little to do with trade between countries and a lot to do with our major agribusiness corporations being free to sell mystery meat in the United States, with neither consumers nor our elected representatives in Congress able to ensure its safety, much less even know where it is from,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch.

After 50 years of state efforts to institute COOL for meats, and federal experimentation with voluntary COOL for meat, Congress passed a mandatory COOL program as part of the 2008 farm bill. In their successful WTO challenge, Mexico and Canada argued that the mandatory program violated the limits that the WTO sets on what sorts of product-related “technical regulations” WTO signatory countries are permitted to apply. In their filings to the WTO, Canada and Mexico suggested that the U.S. should drop its mandatory labels in favor of a return to voluntary COOL, or to standards suggested by the Codex Alimentarius, which is an international food standards body at which numerous international food companies play a central role. Neither option would ensure that U.S. consumers are guaranteed the same level of information as the current U.S. labels.

Today’s decision follows WTO rulings this year against U.S. “dolphin-safe” tuna labels and 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 Wallach.

In today’s ruling, the trade panel specifically found that COOL labeling requirements violated the Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade (TBT), one of 17 agreements administered by the WTO. While the WTO has ruled on nearly 200 disputes, the TBT had played a major role in only a few cases thus far.

“There has been widespread concern that this provision could empower a WTO panel to second-guess the U.S. Congress, courts and public by elevating the goal of maximizing trade flows over consumer and environmental protection,” said Todd Tucker, research director for Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “Today’s ruling shows that consumers’ concerns were well-founded.” 

“The Obama administration is in the process of negotiating its first-ever trade deal – the Trans-Pacific Free Trade Agreement – and so far it looks like it will replicate many of the anti-consumer rules present in the WTO terms and the North American Free Trade Agreement,” noted Wallach. “These WTO rulings show the need for President Obama to start fulfilling his campaign pledges to create a trade policy Americans can believe in and stop expanding the old trade pact model.”

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