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Consumer groups urge Obama administration to support country-of-origin labeling for meat and produce

Consumer groups are asking the Obama administration to appeal a November 2011 ruling by a World Trade Organization panel against the United State’s country-of-origin labels on meat and fresh produce. The ruling followed a case brought by Canada and Mexico in December 2008 against the consumer labeling law, which is also opposed by agribusiness corporations in the U.S.

“Poll after poll show that American consumers want to know where their food comes from,” Jean Halloran, director of Food Policy Initiatives at Consumers Union, said in a statement. “The WTO should not stand in the way.”

The meat-labeling law was a result of a decades-long struggle to assure consumers are provided with basic information about the origin of meat products, fish, seafood, certain nuts, and fresh fruits and vegetables.

“Consumers have been pushing for country-of-origin labeling for decades only to have the new law challenged at the WTO,” said Chris Waldrop, director of the Food Policy Institute at Consumer Federation of America. “If upheld on appeal, the WTO ruling will undermine consumers’ faith in the fairness of these international institutions.”

Many countries have country-of-origin labeling, including Argentina, Australia, Japan, Canada, Mexico, and the European Union.

"Consumers worldwide have successfully advocated for country-of-origin labeling requirements – most more transparent and informative than the U.S. labels," said Wenonah Hauter, executive director of Food & Water Watch. "Neither the president nor the Congress should bow to the will of international trade bureaucrats that want to take commonsense country-of-origin labels away from the American people."

While the WTO panel affirmed the right of the U.S. to require country-of-origin labeling for meat products, the panelists concluded that requiring companies to comply with the law was too costly for imported livestock, but that the flexibilities in the law violated other WTO rules.

The consumer groups point out that this conflicted ruling demonstrates the danger of emphasizing trade over consumer regulation.

The U.S. has until mid-March to appeal the ruling. If it is not appealed or is upheld on appeal, the U.S. may be asked to weaken or eliminate the country of origin labeling law.

“An appeal will buy the U.S. time and may help weaken or overturn the damaging lower panel ruling,” said Lori Wallach, director of Public Citizen’s Global Trade Watch. “But consumers are calling on Congress to challenge the legitimacy of any WTO ruling against popular consumer policies.”

Copyright 2012, Rita R. Robison, Consumer Specialist


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