Lawsuit filed challenging WTO's COOL ruling

Sep 7, 2012

A press conference organized by three groups, held outside of the Denver Courthouse, to announce a lawsuit against the World Trade Organization’s (WTO) recent Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) ruling, was a dire disappointment to the groups’ organizers.

WTO ruled this summer that COOL, which required meat from Mexico, Canada and other nations to be labeled as such, discriminated against imported beef. The groups have a different perspective.

The press conference was followed by a question and answer opportunity at the nearby Hyatt Hotel, complete with lunch. Obviously expecting a much larger turn out by the size of the conference table and lunch spread, Western Livestock Journal (WLJ) was the only media in attendance.

The three organizations, Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund (R-CALF), Made in the USA Foundation, and Mile High Organics (Melonhead, LLC) tried unsuccessfully to pull off the media event of the year with their lawsuit announcement, which was not totally unexpected.

The lawsuit was filed in the U.S. District Court in Denver, CO. The case seeks a court order declaring that WTO does not have the authority to override U.S. law.

Pointing out that WTO does not have permanent judges, Mike Schultz, R- CALF USA Region VI director and COOL committee chair, shared what they consider some egregious flaws in the ruling. “The WTO appointed an appellate panel of three judges that included a Mexican lawyer who has represented Mexico in trade cases,” Schultz said. This, they believe, is a conflict of interest.

Joel D. Joseph, general counsel of the Made in the USA Foundation, said, “The WTO does not have the right to interfere with domestic laws of the United States. When the U.S. joined the WTO, it agreed to do so only if the WTO could not overrule U.S. law.”

“Consumers have a right to decide whether to buy U.S. or imported meat, and accurate labeling is a consumer right,” Joseph added.

Schultz, his wife, and Joseph were the only three at the so-called press conference. Their passion for this cause did come through during WLJ’s one-on-one discussion, despite Joseph’s apparent lack of agricultural background, using the slang term “mad cow” several times in the discussion, and even including it in the court documents.

“The Country of Origin Labeling Act is not a barrier to trade of any kind,” the lawsuit states. “It was passed to give consumers information about where agricultural products came from. Consumers could choose not to buy raspberries from Guatemala because of a bacterial problem there, or could refuse to buy Canadian beef because of a Mad Cow disease problem there.”

The court document also cites an unidentified “recent opinion poll,” with the plaintiffs claiming that 93 percent of U.S. consumers support the COOL Act.

The lawsuit claims that the Uruguay Round Agreement, signed into law by President Clinton in 1994, states that U.S. law prevails in any trade conflict between the U.S. and other countries.

They claim that Section 102(a)(1) of the Uruguay Round states: “No provision of any of the Uruguay Round Agreement, nor the application of any such provision to any person or circumstance, that is inconsistent with any law of the United States shall have effect.”

The complaint continues: “The ruling by the WTO Appellate Body that declares COOL is a violation of the TBT Agreement, which was executed pursuant to, or under the auspices of, the Uruguay Round Agreement, and that attempts to intimidate the U.S. into modifying COOL to conform to the WTO’s interpretation of the TBT Agreement is inconsistent with the U.S. COOL law. Under Section 102(a) (1), U.S. law prevails over the ruling of the WTO Appellate Body because of the conflict.”

According to the lawsuit, the groups claim irreparable harm without COOL.

“Plaintiff R-CALF USA and its members are harmed by any dilution of the country of origin law and do not want their domestic meat confused by the consumer with meat from Canada and Mexico,” the complaint states.

“Plaintiff Melonhead LLC is harmed by any weakening of country of origin legislation because it does not want Mexican and Canadian meat to be lumped together with meat from the United States. Melonhead’s customers desire U.S.-born, raised and processed beef and do not want confusion with Mexican and Canadian beef.”

“If it wasn’t born, raised and slaughtered here, it can’t be labeled in the U.S.,” Schultz told WLJ.

The lawsuit asks the court to declare that the WTO ruling has no authority to override U.S. law and that its “decision concerning the Country of Origin Labeling Act is void in the United States and throughout the world.”

They also want the court to order Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack to do his “legal duty” to enforce COOL and to order U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk to “cease and desist” from negotiating with Canada and Mexico an amended version of the Act.

Both Vilsack and Kirk are named as defendants. The cattlemen claim Vilsack and Kirk have no “legal right to amend or contravene this law by regulations or negotiations.”

The U.S. government has 60 days to respond to the lawsuit, and WTO will have 21 days after the response, according to Joseph, who is also the group’s lead lawyer in the case. — Traci Eatherton, WLJ Editor