- Associated Press - Tuesday, May 19, 2015

BISMARCK, N.D. (AP) - A World Trade Organization ruling on meat labeling could lead to heavy tariffs that will hurt ranchers and Congress should repeal the country-of-origin labeling law, North Dakota Stockmen’s Association President Steve Brooks said.

The WTO on Monday ruled against U.S. labels on certain cuts of red meat that say where the animals were born, raised and slaughtered, saying the labels put Canadian and Mexican livestock at a disadvantage.

The ruling “opens the door for retaliation” from Canada and Mexico that would hurt cattle producers and the broader U.S. economy, said Brooks, who ranches near Bowman.

“In order to protect producers from industry crippling tariffs, Congress must act quickly to bring the United States into compliance and repeal the law,” Brooks said. U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack has said Congress will have to change or repeal the law to avoid retaliation from Mexico and Canada.

Brooks said ranchers don’t object to the labels, but feel they should not be forced.

“The Stockmen’s Association supports labeling, but through the channels of free enterprise and entrepreneurship,” he said. “The faulty, government-mandated approach has not benefited producers or consumers.”

U.S. meat processors support the WTO ruling, because they consider the labels burdensome.

The Independent Beef Association of North Dakota, another rancher group, supports the country-of-origin labeling law and believes the onus should be on Canada and Mexico to prove they are harmed by it.

“As you go through grocery stores, everything you pick up has a country of origin on it - fruits, vegetables, fish,” said IBAND President Larry Kinev, who ranches near Dawson. “Why exclude beef?”

U.S. Sen. Heidi Heitkamp, D-N.D., a member of the Senate Agriculture Committee who supports country-of-origin labeling, said she wants to find a bipartisan solution that will support ranchers while also benefiting consumers and meeting international trade obligations.

National Farmers Union President Roger Johnson, a North Dakota farmer and former state agriculture commissioner, said he thinks any solution “must involve continuation of a meaningful country-of-origin labeling requirement.”

Johnson urged the Obama administration to negotiate with Mexico and Canada on a solution.

“Congress may well have a role to play once the administration has worked with our trading partners … if a statutory modification is deemed warranted by the administration, but the time for action is not now,” he said.

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Follow Blake Nicholson on Twitter at: https://twitter.com/NicholsonBlake

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