Following WTO Ruling, US Repeals Meat Labeling Law

January 5, 2016Political Economyby EW News Desk Team

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Say what you will about the American diet — the truth is that Americans are actually among the most conscientious eaters in the world. Millions of Americans enjoy knowing exactly what they are eating, including where it came from; how it was processed, and other details of how it made it to the table. Now, a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling has made it much harder to find out where Americans' pork and beef was born, raised, and slaughtered.

It took more than a decade of battles before Congress was ready to throw in the towel and repeal a labeling law that required retailers to identify the animal's country of origin on packages of red meat. While many in the meat industry see this as a victory, consumers express outrage and confusion as to how and why an international organization like the WTO has the right to interfere with their access to information about the food they eat. 

According to the Spokesman-Review, lawmakers in Congress felt they ultimately had little choice but to repeal the labeling law or face further penalties at the hands of the WTO. The WTO has already authorized Canada and Mexico to assess more than $1 billion in sanctions against the United States for its ongoing violation of prior WTO rulings relate to this matter. 

Before the repeal, the labels in question informed consumers where the animal that produced a particular package of meat was born, raised, and slaughtered. The label law first took effect in 2002 following an outbreak of mad cow disease originating in imported cattle. The labels allowed consumers the peace of mind of knowing whether their meat had been subject to the often more stringent laws of the United States regarding the feeding and handling of animals. However, the labels did not become widely used until 2009 due to delays perpetrated by the meat industry itself, which was very opposed to the labeling law. 

After the United States lost all of its appeals before the WTO, repeal of the labeling law became virtually inevitable. Failing to do so would have simply resulted in additional sanctions. Still, consumer rights groups have vocally protested the decision to repeal the law. 

Citizens in northern Border States also see the repeal as an enormous defeat, given the impact it will have on U.S. ranchers in these areas who directly compete with Canada just over the border. Lawmakers from those states attempted to float an alternative solution in which the labeling practice would become voluntary. However, they lacked the requisite support from other areas of the country, and these measures eventually lost. 

Asked for a reaction to the repeal, Roger Johnson of the National Farmers Union indicated that his constituents were "furious" about the repeal. He went on to say, "Packers will be able to once again deliberately deceive consumers."

Although the repeal lifted labeling requirements for country of origin, Congress declined to eliminate a similar law pertaining to mandatory labeling for genetically modified food.