Mark Gibson/AP

Mexican Ban on US Meat Caps Tense Month of Continental Trade Debates

December 30, 2008 08:29 AM
by Christopher Coats
Mexico announced a ban on meat imported from 30 U.S. slaughterhouses at the end of a month of protests and debate over food safety and labels of origin.

A Question of Origin

The meat ban, initiated without a clear explanation this week, caps a tense month of protest from Canada and Mexico regarding the passage of the Country of Origin Labeling Law (COOL), which requires agriculture products sold in the United States to include their location of origin.

The law also requires additional documentation for meat products coming from outside of the United States, leading the NAFTA partners to suggest the process is costing them millions and unfairly excluding foreign meat.

Although both Mexican officials and USDA representatives insist the ban has nothing to do with the COOL protests, which have led both Canada and Mexico to lodge official complaints with the World Trade Organization, some have suggested the timing makes the connection difficult to ignore.

Short of offering a firm explanation about why Mexico banned the meat, officials have pointed to charges of unsanitary conditions and “possible pathogen findings” as the cause for concern.

Background: A long road to implementation

Proposed since the early 1990s and part of the 2008 Farming Bill, the COOL regulations have been proposed a number of times since first being introduced in 2002, though according to Scripps News Service, lobbying efforts on the part of the meat industry have kept them from implementation.

However, food contamination cases in recent years have changed the political landscape, making labels of origin a more pressing and universally popular idea among legislators.

The recent ban marks the latest in a long history of international disagreements concerning the meat trade, most of which center on sanitation issues and the evolution of food-borne illnesses such as salmonella.

The last decade saw several countries tighten importation rules following cases of Mad Cow Disease, while some countries have fought inorganic breeding practices and genetic farming with outright bans on the particular national imports.

The struggle to ban genetically altered beef in the European Union has recently forced U.S. farms to enact new rules and regulations to avoid a complete removal of their animals from the European market.

Opinion & Analysis: Toothless protectionism?

Reflecting many similar debates in the past, recent protest surrounding the COOL laws has resulted in charges of economic protectionism.

“Under the veil of food safety, country of origin labeling came forward,” Ed Stelmach, premier of Alberta, Canada, told the Calgary Herald. “And you know, it’s one thing to put a label on a steak and say, well this one is from Alberta, and this one is from Mexico and this one is from the United States. But I ask you today, how do you label a Campbell’s soup can?”

Seattle PI’s Andrew Schneider warns that despite the implementation of the long debated COOL rules, consumers should still be wary of what they buy due to a host of what he sees as loopholes.

Pointing to rules allowing any food combined with one other product to escape the demand for a label, Schneider argues that those fighting the COOL rules ultimately got their way.

Key Figures: Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America

One of the leading proponents of the COOL rules, earning them little support from foreign food producers, has been the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America.

Pitting them against meatpackers, processors and retailers, the Fund’s legal actions have framed the argument about the COOL rules as an issue of consumer safety and choice.

“Consumers should be able to choose, but meatpackers and retailers do not want consumers to exercise choice,” Fund CEO Bill Bullard told The Natural Food Merchandiser. “They would rather continue to source their products from other countries.”

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