It ain’t over till it’s over. Someone needs to remind Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz of this as he ponders his next public pronouncement on mandatory country-of-origin labelling. Ritz raised eyebrows last month when he confidently predicted that the U.S. Congress, through a new Farm Bill, would repeal COOL.
Ritz had come to the North American Meat Association’s annual outlook conference with a delegation that included his provincial counterparts from Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba, plus representatives from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association and the Canadian Pork Council. This was the first time the Canadian government had brought its argument against COOL to a U.S. forum.
The Canadian and U.S. meat and livestock industries have worked closely in recent years to roll back COOL. So Ritz was speaking to an audience of COOL opponents. Most of his remarks merely reiterated Canada’s position on COOL. But he especially emphasized Canada’s determination to apply, if necessary, more than C$1 billion worth of retaliatory tariffs against U.S. products that enter Canada. He reminded his audience that “as you are aware, the list includes many of the (meat) products marketed by you in this room.
“I don’t have to tell you the importance of our Canadian market to your ongoing success,” he added. “With the American cattle herd at all-time lows, mandatory COOL is the last thing you can afford. Last year, Canadian consumers purchased more than $2.2 billion worth of beef and pork products from the U.S. With respect to retaliation, our truth is this. These retaliatory measures, should we be forced to bring them into effect, will hurt producers and consumers on both sides of the border. It’s by no means our preferred course of action or that of anyone in this room, I’m sure,” he said.
Playing the “retaliation” card made sense. As Ritz said, coming out early with a comprehensive retaliatory list of U.S. products was “very helpful.” He knew of course that just a week or so earlier, several key members of Congress had referred to the possible retaliation. At the first joint House-Senate panel meeting to negotiate a final version of a new Farm Bill, House Agriculture Committee chair Frank Lucas, R-Okla., said: “Working together, we can prevent the imposition of tariffs on a wide array of products important to many states.” Under congressional protocol, Lucas chairs the Farm Bill talks.
This and other expressions by members of the panel led Ritz to express his confidence that the U.S. Congress would legislatively fix COOL through the Farm Bill. But he got a little carried away in the minds of some veteran Washington lobbyists. Ritz on an earlier teleconference with mostly Canadian reporters said Canada is hopeful COOL will be repealed through the Farm Bill. The ground has shifted, the tide has turned, he said. But during later questioning and at the NAMA conference, he said he was “very confident” of repeal. The response at the NAMA conference was, “Oh, I wish he hadn’t said that.”
That’s because the U.S. industry knows that COOL’s supporters will fight tooth and nail to keep COOL intact. A remark like Ritz’s might be seized on as an “example” of Canadian arrogance and be used to rally COOL supporters to lobby their members of Congress. If only Ritz had kept his remarks at “hopeful,” lobbyists say. The other issue is that, currently, there is still only a 50-50 chance that Congress will even agree on a new Farm Bill. Should it fail to produce a final bill, the current bill would be extended again and COOL would remain fully in place.
Steve Kay is publisher and editor of Cattle Buyers Weekly.