Advocates: WTO ruling shows Obama's trade pact will hurt U.S. consumers

Troy Carter

by Bozeman Daily Chronicle

Montana’s Democratic Sen. Jon Tester said the World Trade Organization’s “horrible ruling” against meat labels this week undermines consumers’ right to know where their food comes from when they’re shopping the meat counter.

Tester and consumer advocates said Tuesday that the ruling is a bellwether for more trade-pact based attacks on consumer protection laws that will follow a major free trade deal that the Obama Administration is pursuing.

“I’m the only farmer who butchers his own meat and brings it to Washington. That might sound kind of funny, but quite frankly, I like to know where my meat came from. And I know exactly where it came from if I do the work. Not everybody has that ability,” Tester said. “In fact, very few people have that ability and that’s why we passed country of origin labeling. To let families, to let mothers know where their food comes from.”

Like Tester, Republican Sen. Steve Daines said he too was disappointed by the WTO ruling and that he will work with Montana producers to “promote U.S. beef, protect our producers, and ensure consumers have access to the information they need.”

The ruling Monday was based on arguments from Canada and Mexico that the country of origin labeling law, known as COOL, violated the North American Free Trade Agreement by disadvantaging foreign meats in U.S. markets while not increasing food safety.

Canadian officials said they will prepare retaliatory tariffs on U.S. goods if the law is not repealed. House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, on Tuesday introduced such a repeal to avoid a trade war, the same day the Montana Farmers Union said it will be flying farmers and ranchers to Washington to voice their support for COOL.

“Montana Farmers Union has supported COOL for many years,” said MFU President Alan Merrill. “It is our hope that given this WTO ruling that Congress will allow the process to play out. Producers and consumers deserve that consideration, and that is the message we’ll be sharing with Montana’s Congressional delegation and others while in (Washington) D.C.”

The labeling law was adopted by Congress in the 2008 Farm Bill and required beef, poultry and pork import packaging to list where the animals had been born, raised and slaughtered.

Tester said multinational agricultural corporations were behind the free trade agreements that undermine consumers’ right to know and that that the COOL labels give Montana ranchers an ability to market their products.

“It’s exactly what’s wrong with free trade agreements in this day and age. They’re not fair, they’re free, and people close their eyes to all the other things that spin around outside of it and effect our consumers in a negative way,” Tester said.

During an Oregon trip earlier this month, President Barack Obama told a group of Nike employees that the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) is ” the most progressive trade deal in history.”

“Critics warn that parts of this deal would undermine American regulation – food safety, worker safety, even financial regulations. They’re making this stuff up,” Obama told the crowd. “This is just not true. No trade agreement is going to force us to change our laws.”

Jean Halloran, director of food policy initiatives at Consumers Union, the policy arm of Consumer Reports, said that was exactly what had happened with the WTO ruling, and what could happen again with TPP.

“Clearly consumer protection is at risk. Congress should not cave in and repeal COOL. And Congress should not give the administration the power to sign us up to more of these agreements when they can do such damage to consumer protection,” Halloran said.

The Trans-Pacific Partnership, a 12-nation free trade agreement, is a key part of Obama’s foreign policy pivot from the Middle East to the Asia-Pacific region. To date, the Trans-Pacific Partnership member countries are Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, the United States and Vietnam. Other countries, like India and China, could join later. Half of the world’s population lives in Asia. But the 5-year-old deal is still secret. The few allowed to read it face charges for revealing details.

Congressional authority to conclude the trade deal in the near future passed its first hurdle in the Senate 65-33. The minority opposing the “Trade Promotion Authority” included Tester, while Daines, every other Republican, and 11 Democrats voted yes.

In a news release last week, Daines said the trade pact, supported by a number of Montana businesses, the Montana Grain Growers Association and the Montana Stockgrowers Association, will open new markets and ensure transparency and clear guidelines for Obama’s trade negotiations.

“This bipartisan trade legislation is an important first step in establishing clear guidelines that enforce transparency, maintain Congress’ important role in the process and ensure Montanans’ voices are heard in all trade negotiations,” Daines said. “I look forward to working alongside Montanans to guarantee that we have strong policies in place that help increase opportunity and ensure Montana farmers, ranchers and small businesses remain competitive in the global marketplace.”

International trade is important for Montana, Daines’ statement noted. Eighty percent of Montana’s wheat is exported and $130 million in Montana beef is exported every year.

“Speaking on behalf of Montana Pork Producers Council and all of Montana’s pork producers, we fully support Trade Promotion Authority,” said John Rauser, president of the Montana Pork Producers Council. “We believe that TPA is needed to finalize free trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. This will boost U.S. pork exports and help pork producers’ bottom line.”