What is the difference between beef cattle born in Canada, but raised and slaughtered in the US versus beef cattle born, raised and slaughtered in the United States? At the end of the day, it is just beef, the great tasting meat that many of us can’t get enough of. Needless to say, Canadian beef producers buckled last week as the USDA issued a final rule modifying their country of origin labeling (COOL) to try to fit within WTO rules.
Of course there is a big difference of opinion on the subject depending on who you are. In Canadian cattle country, farmers are solidly behind the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association president who labeled the decision from USDA as “absurd”. I know of Ontario cattle producers who have schooled me on boxed beef being dumped into Ontario supermarkets and who are surely lamenting this decision. As Canadians we are always looking toward free and fair trade for some of our agricultural commodities. Trade rules like the “cool” labeling scenario has always been looked at as a nontariff barrier to the free trade of livestock across our collective border. Fairness in agricultural trade as in all trade between Canada and United States from a Canadian perspective is usually viewed on whatever the United States thinks it should be.
This is not a slight on our American friends, but it is only an admission of how Canadian US trade issues get settled. From a Canadian perspective, the WTO is always the route we take because bilateral negotiations with our American friends never get us anywhere. Canadians are very aware of where we sit in this relationship, the junior partner always loses. So successive ministers of agriculture through the years have always tried the international route to solve trade irritants. Canadian agriculture always goes that route.
When the ruling was announced, my twitter feed lit up with comments from Canadian beef producers. Some of what was ridiculous, saying that we should shut off the oil tap to our American friends. Can you imagine? How ridiculous is that, with our American friends boosting their own oil production every year. Others commented that they only wanted a fair playing field. It’s been a long, frustrating and winding road for Canadian beef producers. I haven’t even begun to talk about the BSE problem from 10 years ago.
However, to get back to my original question there is no difference between beef steers born in the United States or Canada but slaughtered and processed in the United States. At the end of the day, that McDonald’s hamburger is close to the same on both sides of the border. Yes, I will admit I have a McDonald’s hamburger in Dubai this past January that didn’t quite taste right. May it have had a little bit of horsemeat in it from Europe? I digress. The point being a fully integrated free-flowing continental beef market would be good for both sides of the border. American packing plants close to the border and in the North West of the United States would fully benefit.
This issue can be fiery on both sides of the border, but mainly from the United States. I’ve never made any secret that the greatest opposition and criticism that I have faced over my 19 years writing this column for DTN has come from the American beef group RCalf. They have been the firebrands in the United States against Canadian cattle coming into the United States. In earlier times, if I even gave a whiff of injustice with regard to their stance, my mailbox would fill up with criticism from them. Regardless of what you think of them, there passion for US cattle and beef is focused. They, along with other US cattlemen are very passionate about this country of origin labeling and keeping the status quo. Canadians have responded by asking for several retaliatory options like tariffs on US products. Haven’t we heard all this before?
Of course we have. How will Canada respond? I will give you one guess. There will be no retaliatory actions from the Canadian government, but once again we will go back to the WTO to appeal. That is always our best option, putting our trade action to an international body like the WTO and hoping for the best. You might hear a lot of vitriol from the minister of agriculture but it doesn’t amount to a cow-pie. He knows what he’s up against.
Meanwhile, you would think there has to be a better way. Is this what free trade was supposed to be about? Oh no, not in 1 million years from a Canadian perspective. However, in this country we know it’s not about that. A Canadian steer born in Canada but raised and slaughtered in the United States will remain an issue. Regrettably, I’m sure at the consumer level, it’s all still about cheap and nothing about country of origin labeling. Needless to say, this cat was let out of the bag, when COOL was originally initiated. The toothpaste has been out of the tube for a while now. We have no delusions on any great changes ahead.