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Canada gets a cold, hard lesson in U.S. politics with meat-labelling setback

WASHINGTON DC, - Canada gets a painful lesson in American politics today as one of its major economic priorities is forgotten on the messy floor of the legislative sausage-factory that is the U.S. Congress.

Hopes that a major farm bill might end a multibillion-dollar hit to Canadian livestock producers will be officially extinguished in Michigan, where President Barack Obama is scheduled to attend a signing ceremony for the bill.

The bill's bumpy journey to the presidential pen is an eye-opening case study in U.S. lawmaking — that boisterous, unpredictable feast of movable alliances so strikingly different from the routine bill-churning, leader-driven, discipline-heavy parliamentary system in Canada.

In the scramble toward a farm bill, Canadian hopes were undone by a few hostile senators, some pressure on key Democrats, and the anxieties of a Republican leadership eager to tally up some legislative accomplishments in a congressional election year.

Oh, and also, there was yawning indifference.

Among the reasons Canadian farmers lost out is not enough lawmakers cared about a cumbersome country-of-origin labelling (COOL) requirement for meat to turn it into a make-or-break negotiating point that might undo a long-awaited, omnibus bill.

It's nothing personal, explains one of Canada's allies.

"To be honest with you — U.S. lawmakers don't care what Canada thinks in this process," said Colin Woodall, who'd pushed for changes to COOL as the vice-president for government affairs of the National Cattlemen's Beef Association.

"That's just a reality of our political process. This was never seen as a Canadian ask, or a Canadian fix. And there's really not a scenario that would ever change that."

While American lawmakers were drafting the farm bill, Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz had hoped it might end labelling requirements for beef, pork and poultry — rules that are blamed for reducing meat exports to the U.S. by half since 2008.

The subsequent disappointment has Canada and Mexico now looking to retaliatory tariffs on a range of U.S. goods, with the next step in the process a scheduled hearing on Feb. 18 at the World Trade Organization.

So, what happened in the meantime?

For starters, seemingly all of Washington wanted a farm bill quickly. Obama had declared it one of his top priorities. And, with congressional mid-term elections looming a few months away, Republicans also saw it as a chance to dispel their reputation as obstructionists in an unproductive Congress.

The Canadian government, meanwhile, saw the bill as a chance to undo onerous requirements that had been introduced in 2002 and toughened again in 2008.

The issue was never going to be the centrepiece of any legislation — just a late-stage tack-on.

At its core, a U.S. farm bill is a contract between rural and urban lawmakers. It offers financial help for farmers and food stamps for the poor, bringing together a broad voting block to win congressional support.

In this particular fight, the main battle line was food stamps. The Republican-controlled House of Representatives sought deep cuts to the program; Democrats, who control the Senate, didn't want cuts at all.

They wound up settling on modest cuts to food stamps, clearing the biggest hurdle to a deal.

A small negotiating committee was created, comprising both parties in both house of Congress. But the talks were nearly derailed in early January by a disagreement over a price-stabilization program for dairy farmers.

That delay proved fatal to Canadian aspirations, says John Masswohl of the Canadian Cattlemen's Association. He said supporters of mandatory labelling heard it might be sacrificed in the talks, and they used the delay to organize.

He said one of the key pressure groups was the more protectionist National Farmers' Union. Montana senators also pushed the pro-labelling cause — including Max Baucus, the powerful Democrat who runs the finance committee and will be the next U.S. ambassador to China.

The Republicans, meanwhile, weren't willing to let that meat-labelling detail kill an omnibus farm bill that had been years in the making. So they went ahead without it.

Masswohl was disappointed by that turn of events, without being too surprised. He spent years at the Canadian embassy in D.C. and is well aware of the topsy-turvy trajectory of U.S. legislation.

"The U.S. Congress is not a homogeneous body," Masswohl said. "There are different people who do things for different reasons."

As for other COOL supporters, their motives are diverse — ranging from principled stands, to fear of political pressure in their district, to passive indifference.

Dave Warner is upset with how things turned out.

The spokesman for the American National Pork Producers Council said the current rules mean pigs born in Canada, but raised in the U.S., need to be stored separately. Then, for the trip to the slaughterhouse, a farmer might need to send dozens of truckloads within a tiny, 10-hour window each week — so that the pigs are slaughtered separately and stamped with the "Canadian" label.

Meanwhile, the production line gets shut down for the transfer, costing everyone — the slaughterhouse, the American hog producer, and the Canadian farmer. He said U.S. cattle-farmers mostly oppose COOL, as does every organized group of pork producers he can think of.

And he had harsh words for the supporters of mandatory labelling.

He said they had better prepare to face the wrath of consumers, if the U.S. loses again at the WTO and finds itself slapped with tariffs from Canada and Mexico on goods like meat, furniture, maple syrup and orange juice.

"If and when that retaliation comes, we will call out the people who are responsible for this," Warner said.

"(We'll say), 'the reason there's a 20 per cent tariff on apples and the apple-growers in the northwest or in New York who are getting killed right now, is because of these groups right here — these xenophobic groups who think anything that's not from the United States is bad.'"

Canadians might be surprised by one particular lesson from the debate.

It has to do with the temporary nature of political alliances in the U.S.

Some of the biggest and loudest supporters of the Canadian government in the Keystone pipeline debate, for instance, are its biggest opponents on meat-labelling. That includes the two Democratic senators from Montana — staunch friends on Keystone XL, and foes on meat labels.

As Woodall said, it's nothing personal.

There's a more famous adage about U.S. politics, attributed often but probably incorrectly to Harry Truman: "If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog." Canada, it turns out, didn't have enough paws in this one fight.

The Canadian Press


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