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Ben Beachy
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Thanks Simon for the appreciation. Regarding your question, the focus of Public Citizen (as I believe you’re aware) is how so-called “trade” agreements have intruded on domestic policy space for enacting and enforcing health, financial, environmental and consumer safeguards. We find it egregious that corporations can invoke the name of “trade” in pushing for pacts like TPP that would undermine the safeguards they have not been able to undermine in Congress. Even more ironically, these deals sold under the brand of “free trade” include patently anti-free-trade provisions, such as the TPP’s proposed extension of pharmaceutical corporations’ overreaching monopoly patent protections. In spotlighting all of the above, tariffs are not much of a focus for us. They’re also not much of a focus of the TPP. Only 5 of the pact’s 29 chapters cover traditional trade issues. We’re acutely interested in the other 24, and what they portend for safeguards enacted in the interests of the majority.
Simon, Thanks for the response. We’re all for exposing the lively nature of trade law over here. You pose some good questions. My responses: 1. While we’d see your proposed, more general labeling policy as less than ideal, we wouldn’t call it unacceptable. But the WTO would. In fact, they did. The measure you propose is almost word-for-word the U.S. COOL regulation that the WTO AB ruled against last year. The existing U.S. regulation required meat of mixed origin to be generally labeled without specifying production steps: “Product of Country X and the United States.” That is what the panel and the AB deemed to be a “technical barrier to trade.” So if you’re a fan of the labeling measure you propose, you have cause to be irked by the WTO. USDA cleverly responded to the overreaching ruling by strengthening the label, giving consumers more information about each production step. This shift was supported by 87% of respondents in a recent ORC International survey, and it actually addresses the AB’s logic that information gathered upstream wasn’t being delivered to consumers downstream. The more precise labels also do not incur significantly more costs, given that production step information was being gathered anyway (the main costs are changing the labels themselves). More information to consumers at a negligible cost to producers – that’s a shift we support. 2. A Canadian labeling law that encouraged Canadians to buy more Canadian meat is not something I would reject prima facie, particularly if it did so simply by telling them where their food comes from, as COOL does. If Canadian consumers overwhelmingly demand more information about the origin of their food, as they do in the United States, then basic democratic tenets would require that they be able to see that desire manifested in democratically-determined Canadian labeling policies without fear of WTO-authorized retribution. And basic economic tenets would require that for food markets to function efficiently, Canadian consumers, like U.S. consumers, should be informed about the nature of their products. And that’s all COOL does -- provide information. Under COOL, labels do not say (as perhaps you were envisioning for the hypothetical Canadian law), “Please eat only U.S.-produced meat.” They do not say “Meat from other countries shan’t be trusted.” Under (the new and improved) COOL policy, the labels say, “Born in Country X, Raised in Country X, and Slaughtered in Country X.” I can’t see why I, you, the WTO, or anyone should object to the provision of such basic information to consumers, regardless of their country.
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Um, no. Not even “sort of.” Come now, Simon, you know we had no words of “praise” for the AB. We, like the 90% of the U.S. public that supports COOL, would find it hard to conjure up any positive words for a ruling against labels that better inform consumers about the source of their food. Our only praise was reserved for the USDA, for responding in uncharacteristic fashion to the ruling by strengthening rather than weakening the COOL regulation: “Public Citizen and other consumer groups have applauded the USDA approach, which stands in stark contrast to past U.S. responses to WTO rulings, which have involved weakening public interest safeguards ruled against by the WTO.” But our main point isn’t about the allotment of praise at all (as indicated by the brunt of the write-up). Instead, we’re spotlighting the critical question provoked by USDA’s final rule and Mexico/Canada’s likely rejection of the rule: will the WTO accept the strengthening of COOL as compliance, or will it authorize trade sanctions against the United States for not weakening/eliminating the popular food labels? The former would depart from the WTO’s consumer-safeguard-undermining precedent; the latter would fulfill it. Neither would be worthy of praise, as it’s the AB’s overreaching ruling that got us into this mess in the first place. Here’s our full post that sparked this thread:
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Jul 5, 2012