By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
WASHINGTON (DTN) -- Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., and Senate Agriculture Committee Ranking Member Debbie Stabenow, D-Mich., on Thursday introduced a bipartisan bill to take beef, pork, chicken and ground meat out of the mandatory country-of-origin labeling law and establish a voluntary labeling program. At the same time, Senate Agriculture Committee Chairman Pat Roberts, R-Kan., introduced the House-passed bill to repeal country-of-origin labeling for the same products.
Hoeven said on the Senate floor Thursday afternoon that he and Stabenow had taken the House repeal bill and added a voluntary labeling program to it.
"That's just reasonable," Hoeven said, "because that's what Canada does."
At a news conference Thursday, Hoeven also said he hopes to add it as an amendment to the highway bill. Stabenow said that if that doesn't work, they will search for other ways to get it enacted before the August recess.
Hoeven and Stabenow also said they hope the Senate adopts their approach and the House then takes up the bill before it goes out of session next Friday.
Hoeven and Stabenow said their bill would address the World Trade Organization ruling that the U.S. mandatory labeling program has discriminated against Canadian and Mexican producers because it has resulted in U.S. packers paying lower prices for Canadian-born and/or -raised animals or not buying them at all.
"This is a train that was headed down the track toward total repeal much too quickly," Heitkamp said. "Those of us who support labeling need a different path forward." She added that her father, a trucker and heavy equipment operator, had taught her: "Don't back up more than you have to."
But Roberts went to the Senate floor a few minutes after Hoeven and Stabenow held their news conference, and offered the House repeal bill as an amendment to the highway bill. He said that only a complete repeal will satisfy Canada and Mexico, which have threatened to impose retaliatory tariffs on a possible $3 billion in U.S. products.
At the news conference, Hoeven said that Darci Vetter, U.S. chief agricultural trade negotiator, had told him that whether Congress repeals the mandatory labeling program or repeals it and adds a voluntary program, the United States will be in the same negotiating position at the WTO.
Stabenow also noted that when Congress was trying to figure out how to change the cotton program to resolve a WTO case won by Brazil, members of Congress said they were not concerned about satisfying Brazil. She also noted that when COOL was first considered, opponents introduced a voluntary bill and, at that time, Canadian officials said they favored a voluntary approach.
Hoeven and Stabenow have six original co-sponsors: Senate Republican Conference Chairman John Thune, R-S.D.; Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn.; Chuck Grassley, R-Iowa; Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D.; Mike Enzi, R-Wyo.; and Sherrod Brown, D-Ohio.
Hoeven noted on the Senate floor Thursday that all the original co-sponsors except Enzi are members of the Senate Agriculture Committee, and Stabenow said at the news conference that the list of co-sponsors means that a majority of the committee supports the bill. But Stabenow said she does not expect a committee markup and believes the bill will be considered directly on the Senate floor.
Roberts has only Republican co-sponsors for his bill: John Cornyn, R-Texas; Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.; John Boozman, R-Ark.; Richard Burr, R-N.C.; Tom Cotton, R-Ark.; Cory Gardner, R-Colo.; David Perdue, R-Ga.; James Risch, R-Idaho; Ben Sasse, R-Neb.; and Thom Tillis, R-N.C.
The Stabenow-Hoeven bill differs in several ways from the discussion draft that Stabenow presented at a Senate Agriculture Committee hearing, and the changes were apparently the results of discussions with the meat industry.
Rather than creating an exemption for the products to the labeling law, as the draft did, the bill removes the products from the list of "covered commodities." It also says that the packers, rather than the retailers, would be in charge of the label.
When a reporter noted that voluntary labeling was possible before mandatory labeling was imposed and meat companies did express interest, Heitkamp said that she believes consumer attitudes have changed.
"Things have changed in the last 20 years as people look at labels. The label may in fact create a premium product," she said.
There would be uniformity to an "A" label describing meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States, but companies could still have other labels that said meat comes from multiple countries or comes from a single foreign country.
Out of concern that the label might be applied to processed meat, the bill refers to "a single ingredient," a phrase that the senators got from the Agriculture Department's Food Safety and Inspection Service.
Hoeven and Stabenow said they believe that other senators will support their bill and that Roberts and House Agriculture Committee Chairman Michael Conaway, R-Texas, will work with them.
Hoeven and Stabenow both said that other senators have "preferences" about how to proceed on COOL, but that their priority is to solve the problem. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., recognizes the need to deal with the problem before retaliation is imposed, Hoeven said.
"No one has said they are absolutely opposed" to their bill, Stabenow said.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., said that the senators who are supporting the Hoeven-Stabenow bill are the same ones who led the Senate to reach compromises and pass a farm bill in 2014.
Noting that he has been working on COOL since the 1990s, Grassley brought back an old argument when he said, "It is important for people to know where their meat is coming from. They know where their T-shirts come from."
But the initial reactions to the bill followed the fault lines that have been in place for years on COOL.
"Whether you support or oppose COOL, the fact is retaliation is coming," Roberts said in his floor speech.
"We need to protect the U.S. economy from potentially $3 billion in tariffs. Canada and Mexico have repeatedly stated that Congress can prevent retaliation and protect our vast exports by simply taking up the House-passed repeal bill, and I am offering an amendment to do just that," he said.
"We can continue to discuss voluntary labeling programs similar to those already in the marketplace -- once COOL is repealed," Roberts concluded.
Conaway said he appreciated Hoeven's and Conaway's efforts, but in his view, the voluntary program they proposed "would operate under similar rules as the program found to violate U.S. international trade rules" and that the better route would be to repeal the measure.
Hoeven acknowledged that it is hard to appeal to both the pro-COOL forces who want a continuation of mandatory labeling and the anti-COOL forces that don't want a voluntary program.
The reactions of the National Farmers Union and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association, which have campaigned hard for mandatory labeling, reflected that view.
NFU President Roger Johnson said, "This is the only politically viable means of preventing Congress from completely stripping away a clear national label for livestock born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. by developing a clear, strong, and honest 'Made in the USA' label that consumers can ask for and trust," said Johnson. "This compromise maintains integrity of the 'Made in the USA' brand and will prevent the packers from deliberately deceiving consumers as they have in the past."
USCA President Danni Beer said her group "remains in firm support of mandatory country-of-origin labeling. However, given recent rulings at the World Trade Organization, we appreciate this bipartisan legislation, which maintains the integrity of COOL when utilized on a voluntary basis."
The COOL Reform Coalition, which includes farm groups and industries that fear retaliation, called for Senate passage of the Roberts bill.
The National Cattlemen's Beef Association left Hoeven's name off the bill even though he is the lead sponsor and said that Stabenow's bill "guarantees trade war with Canada and Mexico."
The National Pork Producers Council also ignored Hoeven's role.
"While we appreciate Sen. Stabenow's efforts, we can't support her bill because it would continue key features of a labeling regime that's already been found to violate WTO rules," NPPC President Ron Prestage said. "More importantly, it doesn't satisfy Canada and Mexico, so it won't stop retaliation, and we can't afford to have our products restricted, through tariffs, to two of our top three markets."
The North American Meat Institute, which represents meat processors throughout the continent, said Congress should pass the Roberts bill because "we can't afford to waste precious time debating proposals other than full and simple repeal. Anything else jeopardizes important segments of the U.S. economy and ultimately our consumers."
Canadian officials also chose to ignore that Hoeven, a Republican, is the lead sponsor.
"Senator Stabenow's COOL 2.0 fails to address Canada's concerns and would continue to undermine our integrated North American supply chains," said Canadian Agriculture and Agri-Food Minister Gerry Ritz and International Trade Minister Ed Fast.
"By continuing the segregation of and discrimination against Canadian cattle and hogs, Sen. Stabenow's measure will harm farmers, ranchers, packers, retailers and consumers on both sides of the border. This is contrary to successive World Trade Organization (WTO) decisions that have clearly ruled in Canada's favor. The U.S. Senate must follow the lead of the House of Representatives and put forward legislation that repeals COOL once and for all."
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