House votes to repeal law that requires meats to be labeled with animal's country of origin

Economic Indicators Associated Press

A House committee has voted to get rid of labels on packages of meat that say where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered.

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The House Agriculture Committee voted 38-6 to repeal a "country-of-origin" labeling law for meat on Wednesday — just two days after the World Trade Organization ruled against parts of it. The labels tell consumers what countries the meat is from: for example, "born in Canada, raised and slaughtered in the United States," or "born, raised and slaughtered in the United States."

The WTO ruled Monday that the U.S. labels put Canadian and Mexican livestock at a disadvantage, rejecting a U.S. appeal after a similar WTO decision last year.

The Obama administration had already revised the labels once to try to comply with previous WTO rulings. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said it is out of the administration's hands and has called on Congress to change the law to avoid retaliation — such as extra tariffs — from the two neighbor countries.

The law was initially written at the behest of northern U.S. ranchers who compete with the Canadian cattle industry. It also was backed by some consumer advocates who say it helps shoppers know where their food comes from. Those supporters have called on the U.S. government to negotiate with Canada and Mexico to find labels acceptable to all countries.

But many in the U.S. meat industry — including meat processors who buy animals from abroad — have called for a repeal of the law, which they have fought for years.

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House Agriculture Committee Chairman Mike Conaway, R-Texas, has long backed the meat industry's call for repeal. Along with several of his colleagues, he introduced the legislation to repeal the labeling requirements hours after the WTO decision.

All but six of the committee's Democrats supported the bill, which Conaway said was a "targeted" response to the WTO decision.

"We cannot sit back and let American businesses be held hostage to the desires of a small minority who refuse to acknowledge that the battle is lost," Conaway said.

The bill would go beyond just the muscle cuts of red meat that were covered under the WTO case, however, also repealing country-of-origin labeling for poultry, ground beef and ground pork. Conaway said the poultry industry asked to be included after facing "high costs and little if any quantifiable benefits" from the labeling law.

Canada and Mexico have also called on the United States to repeal the labeling rules, saying they will seek authorization from the WTO to take retaliatory measures against U.S. exports. The two countries have opposed the law because it causes their animals to be segregated from those of U.S. origin — a costly process that has forced some U.S. companies to stop buying exports.

Congress required the labels in 2002 and 2008 farm laws, mostly at the behest of the northern U.S. ranchers. The original labels were less specific, saying a product was a "product of U.S." or "product of U.S. and Canada." WTO rejected those labels in 2012, and USDA tried again with the more detailed labels a year later. The WTO rejected those revised rules last year, and the United States filed one last appeal, rejected Monday by the WTO.

Senate Agriculture Chairman Pat Roberts of Kansas also has said he will move swiftly to respond to the WTO ruling, but has yet to introduce a bill.

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