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WTO Challenges U.S. Meat Labeling Law
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by Joan Jones Holtz, Sierra Club Trade Team | 2011

Veggie Burger, Anyone??

Hamburgers have long been considered one of America’s most traditional foods. But, many of us may soon be stocking our freezers with veggie burgers instead. A recent Reuters report suggests that WTO rules will soon prohibit the labeling of meat as to the country of origin. That means that American consumers will have no idea where the meat products they consume originated or if
they were processed in a manner which would induce them to eat the meat.

In his 2000 book and later movie Fast Food Nation, Eric Schlosser wrote, “The days when hamburger meat was ground in the back of a butcher shop, out of scraps from one or two sides of beef, are long gone. Like the multiple sex partners that helped spread the AIDS epidemic, the huge admixture of animals in most American ground beef plants has played a crucial role in spreading E. coli. A single fast food hamburger now contains meat from dozens or even hundreds of different cattle.”

The ground meat horror stories publicized by Schlosser helped to push for the inclusion of COOL (country of origin labeling) in the 2007-2008 Farm Bill. COOL said that beef, lamb, pork, chicken, or goat meat could only be designated as “Made in the USA” if it were “exclusively born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States.” Although President Bush originally vetoed the bill, Congress overrode the veto and COOL became law on May 22, 2008. Now the American COOL law has been challenged.

Mexico, Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Colombia, European Union, Guatemala, India, Korea, New Zealand, Peru, New Zealand and Chinese Taipei have all asked the World Trade Organization (WTO) to step in to squash the U.S. meat labeling program. It is still unclear which WTO rule the U.S. is violating by labeling meat. The probable conclusion is that the U.S. can’t institute a meat labeling program if by doing so consumers will choose against buying meat from unknown countries whose processing standards are hygienically questionable (and ground meat that may come from hundreds of animals and dozens of countries).

WTO rules puts trade volume and corporate interests first — way ahead of consumer safety or environmental standards. The laws we, in a democratic society, pass to protect our health and our safety mean nothing in the face of WTO rules and corporate profit. In other words, the trade rules that our country has agreed to follow roll back democracy.

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