U.S. meat label idea may revive Canada trade spat

Wed Feb 18, 2009 3:16pm EST
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By Charles Abbott

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack's proposal for unofficial changes to country-of-origin labels on meat sold in U.S. stores may re-ignite a cattle trade dispute with Canada, two farm lobbyists said on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama was scheduled to meet Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper on Thursday in Ottawa on his first foreign trip since taking office last month. The discussions were expected to include the global recession, trade and energy.

Vilsack asked meatpackers during a meeting on Tuesday to voluntarily put more details on meat labels. The Agriculture Department delayed a public unveiling of the plan on Wednesday but a spokesman said Vilsack was going ahead with the idea.

"The damage is done," a U.S. farm lobbyist said, because USDA increased frictions just before the U.S.-Canada meeting. Said another farm lobbyist: "The whole thing blew up in their faces." The lobbyists spoke on condition of anonymity.

A final set of U.S. rules for country-of-origin labeling is due to take effect on March 16. Vilsack said he would re-open the rule-making process, if packers did not agree to the unofficial changes that he suggested.

They are specifically listing the origin of cuts of meat, putting country-of-origin labels on a larger volume of processed meats and allowing less leeway on listing the origin of ground meat.

Some U.S. consumer and farm groups say the labeling rule proposed on January 15 by the outgoing Bush administration was too lax and exempted too many products.

Canada shelved a World Trade complaint last month in the belief that U.S. rules would give packers more flexibility in handling livestock. It had charged the U.S. labeling law was a trade barrier that depressed prices for Canadian livestock.   Continued...