Politico: Trump COOL plan is ‘dead as a doornail’

By Jenny Hopkinson

11/18/2016 06:14 PM EDT

Donald Trump’s plan to consider new country of origin labeling rules for meat looks to be short lived.

While many U.S. cattle ranchers may have had their hopes raised, much of the agriculture industry had a moment of dread earlier this week when leaked parts of the president-elect’s plan for his first 100 days in office included the return of COOL as a possible amendment in the renegotiation of NAFTA. However, the Trump administration’s agriculture advisory committee seems to have succeeded in convincing his team to drop that part of the plan.

"No one knows how that got in there, and it is dead as a doornail," Gary Baise, an attorney with Olsson Frank Weeda who advises some members of the committee, told POLITICO.

The COOL rules, which were part of the 2008 farm bill, required that pork and beef sold in the United States be labeled for where animals were born, raised and slaughtered. However, Canada and Mexico argued that the labels were effectively a protectionist policy aimed at promoting domestic meat producers, challenging the rules at the World Trade Organization. Meanwhile, the U.S. meat industry, led by the North American Meat Institute, also took aim at the rule, arguing in a legal challenge that requiring them to include such labels was a violation of their First Amendment rights.

While the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit backed the rules, the WTO — after a series of appeals — found that the rules discriminated against foreign-grown meat and so violated the trade agreement. In a Dec. 7, 2015, opinion, it cleared the way for Canada and Mexico to impose retaliatory tariffs of $780.9 million and $227.8 million, respectively.

The USDA formally scrapped its rule in February 2016.

Under the America First Trade Policy’s Action Plan, the details of which were relayed to POLITICO, Trump and his yet-to-be named U.S. Trade Representative would review the United States’ participation in NAFTA on the president-elect’s first day in office. Among the amendments to the trade agreement that the plan suggested could be obtained was "a restoration of country of origin labeling."

One possible source of the provision could be the Coalition for a Prosperous America, which advocates for trade policies that promote domestic manufacturing and production. The group has offered policy advice to the Trump team that included the support of COOL, confirmed Michael Stumo, its chief executive officer.

The concept of reinstating COOL may have also been brought up to the Trump team by former Ohio Rep. Robert McEwen, who was introduced to the idea while attending R-CALF’s annual convention in August as a surrogate for the campaign, said Bill Bullard, CEO of the group.

"I certainly don’t know if he went right back to President-elect Trump pushing the idea … but we know for a fact that he was very interested in [COOL] at the time," Bullard said.

But reinstating meat origin labeling rules a non-starter for many in agriculture, who are still reeling from the yearslong court and WTO battles.

"It’s concerning that [the Trump plan would include] the idea that COOL could be reestablished as it has been because the WTO has ruled against it on many occasions," said Eric Mittenthal, NAMI’s vice president for communication. NAMI lead the lawsuit against the USDA’s rules.

Canadian ranchers also sounded the alarm. The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association was planning to pressure officials in Ottawa to retaliate against the United States if any amendments include meat origin labeling, Reuters reported.

"We’re watching … and if we think it discriminates against our cattle, our recommendation is going to be that tariffs go into place immediately" on U.S. products, John Masswohl, the group’s director of government and international relations, told Reuters.

But meat producers on both sides of the border can save their powder. After reports first surfaced about the possible return of COOL, members of Trump’s agriculture advisory committee led by its chairman, Nebraska rancher Charles Herbster, contacted the Trump transition team and have received assurances that the provision has been removed from his plan.

"People were bouncing off the ceiling," Baise said of reactions by committee members. "No worries on that one, it’s gone."

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