By Greg Henderson, Drovers
During Senate confirmation hearings on Tuesday, Tom Vilsack, the former Ag Secretary who is President Biden’s nominee to return as Ag Secretary, said he is willing to consider reimplementation of country-of-origin labeling (COOL) regulations for meat products.
Addressing a question from Nebraska Senator Deb Fischer about whether he believes the current labeling policy adequately informed consumers, Vilsack said, “If it’s the same policy as it was four years ago when I left, the answer is no.”
As Ag Secretary under President Obama, Vilsack said, “We made every concerted effort to try to create better transparency and better information for consumers, because we understand that consumers want to know where their food comes from.”
Vilsack said the Obama Administration attempted on three occasions to strengthen COOL but was unsuccessful because of Canadian challenges to the law through the World Trade Organization (WTO). In December 2015, Congress repealed the COOL law for beef and pork because of a series of WTO rulings that prohibited labels based on country of origin on some products.
The Canadian government argued that COOL worked to the detriment of the meat industry on both sides of the border by increasing costs, lowering processing efficiency and otherwise distorting trade across the Canada-U.S. border. Mexico made similar claims.
In May 2015 the WTO ruled that U.S. COOL requirements discriminated against Canadian and Mexican livestock, and subsequently authorized Canada and Mexico to impose $1 billion in retaliatory tariffs against U.S. imports.
“I am absolutely willing to listen to anybody who has an idea” about how the U.S. can implement COOL where the WTO doesn’t “slap it down,”Vilsack said.
South Dakota Senator John Thune asked Vilsack about volatility in the cattle markets and “what actions (Vilsack) would take to strengthen the integrity of the cattle market.”
Vilsack responded he would use every “capacity we have with USDA to make sure that we have open, fair and transparent markets.” He said he would seek price discovery data and economic analysis to “determine whether or not there’s a problem,” and if so, “using the tools we have to provide greater competition, greater openness, greater transparency, greater fairness.”
Vilsack also expressed interest in expanding processing opportunities “so that we’re not overly reliant on a small number of processors.” He also said he would work with the Department of Justice to “determine whether or not they see reasons for additional action on their behalf.”