By Chris Clayton
DTN Ag Policy Editor
DES MOINES (DTN) -- Without giving any indication how the next World Trade Organization ruling on Country of Origin Labeling will come down, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said Thursday the COOL decision could become public within a few weeks, if not days.
Vilsack spent Thursday with his Mexican counterpart, Enrique Martinez, secretary of fisheries and agriculture, showing Martinez some climate research facilities at Iowa State University before holding a joint forum at the 2014 World Food Prize Borlaug Dialogue.
In a press conference late Thursday afternoon, Martinez said through an interpreter that the ruling on COOL would affect producers in both countries. Martinez also noted the U.S. Congress created the law to label the country of origin for meat.
"We also understand that this is not the purview of the secretary of Agriculture, but that it is also something that must be decided by Congress," Martinez said.
The U.S. has already lost a WTO decision on COOL once, causing USDA to rewrite the rule in a new effort that was rolled out to retailers last year. However, both the Mexican and Canadian governments immediately sued the U.S. again in the trade-dispute body.
An adverse ruling could once again prompt Mexico and Canada to seek retaliatory sanctions on imports of U.S. products. Canadian officials have made it clear in recent months they plan to seek that approach if the Obama administration doesn't drop COOL. U.S. business groups have been asking Congress to quickly act to modify or eliminate country of origin labeling on meat if either Mexico or Canada begin moving toward retaliatory tariffs.
Martinez said, "Our arguments have been that although the animal is born in Mexico then the animal is later exported to the U.S., most of the process that follows is carried out in the U.S., that is the fattening of the animal, the slaughter and the processing of the product into the supermarkets or wherever the point of sale is, so most of this activity happens in the U.S. The only thing that happens in Mexico is that the animal is born there."
Martinez added that Mexican officials are trying to find the best solution possible.
Vilsack said a point often lost in any conversation about COOL is that the U.S. and Mexico have a solid trade relationship. "They are one of our top trading partners and I'm fairly certain we are one of their top trading partners in agriculture," Vilsack said. "So there is a strong relationship between the two countries and strong benefits that have accrued to both producers in our countries because of the trade agreements that have been reached.
Vilsack added, "It would be inappropriate for me to talk about the specifics of COOL because we have yet to hear publicly what the WTO has ruled. Obviously, my job as secretary is to comply with congressional directives as long as it remains the directive of the Congress and to assure compliance with whatever decisions may be made from the WTO."
U.S. officials continue to communicate with Mexicans and Canadians to find a way forward. "At the end of the day, regardless of how this gets resolved, we are and will remain very strong trading partners."
The ruling will come "relatively soon," Vilsack said, "a matter of weeks, if not days."
Vilsack was also asked at the press conference about Ebola in West Africa and whether that would affect U.S. trade or humanitarian assistance. Vilsack said USDA is working to ensure food assistance continues to get through to people who need it.
"There will be circumstances situations that may be more difficult and more complex because of the way we have to work through the process, but we are committed to trying to get food assistance where it's needed when it's needed," he said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at email@example.com.
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