By Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent
SANTA FE, N.M. (DTN) -- Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack vigorously defended country-of-origin labeling for red meat to the National Farmers Union here Monday, but he also warned that restrictions on meat imports need to be science-based if the United States is to continue to win export markets.
The secretary did not bring up either topic during his speech to the Democratic-leaning NFU's annual convention, but in response to a question about the future of the labeling scheme, Vilsack said he is "proud of the work we have done on COOL." He also noted that the World Trade Organization has said that the United States could label meat by country of origin, but needed to change the labels to comply with WTO standards.
That rewrite is the subject of review in the Geneva-based organization.
The U.S. meat processing industry and the governments of Canada and Mexico have opposed mandatory U.S. country-of-origin labeling for red meat.
"We are aggressively pursuing this in the WTO," Vilsack said, adding that by summer "we should have a sense of where they are coming on this."
Vilsack also credited NFU with Congress' decision not to include a proposed farm bill provision to repeal or restrict COOL.
But when another attendee asked for Vilsack's reaction to NFU members' concern that USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service will allow meat imports from areas of South America that have foot and mouth disease, Vilsack reminded them that trade goes both ways.
"We are not going to let something into this country that is going to create risk," Vilsack said.
But he added, "We are engaged in a global economy" which has allowed American agriculture to experience five of the best years in its history.
USDA wants to continue encouraging other countries to import more U.S. foods, especially from small producers, Vilsack said, "but we can't do that if we don't hold ourselves to the same standard we are asking [of] the rest of the world. We can't have that inconsistency."
Referring to the World Organization for Animal Health's listing of the United States as a country with a "negligible risk" of bovine spongiform encephalopathy (BSE), Vilsack said U.S. officials are trying to convince other countries to accept U.S. beef under those circumstances.
"You have to have trust in APHIS," Vilsack said, adding that not accepting beef imports that are deemed safe by APHIS could create a situation that "will come back and bite us."
NFU has traditionally been skeptical about trade agreements, and has stressed the importance of "fair trade" as well as "free trade."
NFU delegates meeting here are considering a special order of business that the organization is "concerned by rulemaking processes at the USDA that may weaken disease protection measures critical to protecting domestic livestock from the introduction of foot-and-mouth diseases, particularly from Brazil, Argentina and China. Inconsistencies between animal health disclosures by some countries, as reported by the Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) and the countries World Organization for Animal Health (OIE), erode our confidence in the safety of beef imports from countries with a history of FMD presence."
"NFU calls upon the administration to defend U.S. farmers and ranchers against any attempts to loosen restrictions on imports from countries that are affected by FMD."
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