Why Did Vilsack Cancel Briefing on MCOOL

February 18, 2009 06:00 PM
 

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

Cancellation of press conference spawns lots of speculation

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack called off a news conference Wednesday morning during which he was expected to announce he would ask the meat industry to voluntarily follow stricter guidelines for new package labels designed to specify a food‘s country of origin. USDA is working on a letter asking meatpackers to voluntarily agree to mandatory country-of-origin labeling (MCOOL) changes. A USDA spokesman said the details of the letter would be made available once it was sent but declined to provide any specifics in advance of the release.

President Obama will meet today with Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper in Canada, and MCOOL is reportedly on the agenda. A top Obama aide said this week that the president's main message to Harper will be to reassure Canadians that the U.S. intends to maintain a robust trading relationship with its neighbor. "This is no time to -- for anybody to give the impression that somehow we are interested in less rather than more trade," said Denis McDonough, deputy national security adviser. "And that's what -- that's the message that he'll underscore."

Canadian Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said Tuesday that the government is watching what the new Obama administration does with MCOOL and it could resurrect a challenge at the World Trade Organization. "In order to get the positive results that we did at the end of the Bush Administration, we had begun the consultation phase for a WTO challenge. There's a protocol that needs to be done. We have put that on hold as the Americans had come through with what we were asking for. That is now off the shelf for the time being as the Obama Administration goes back and makes sure that the Bush Administration didn't leave any land mines in any of these deals. I certainly understand that. We expected that," the Canadian minister said. "But having said that, at the end of the day, should the Obama Administration continue on with protectionism and country of origin labeling, we will then re-ignite our WTO challenge," he continued.

Ritz said given the integrated nature of the North American market any attempt to slow two trade will cause problems. "You know, we bring in a lot of produce from Florida, California and of course their central states, as well as we ship a lot down there. It is a very integrated marketplace, whether you're talking beef, pork, grains, anything at all. And we certainly don't want to see a thickening of the border at all. That's not good for either side," he concluded.


Comments: I have heard various explanations of the USDA press briefing pullback, but I note that when a press briefing has been postponed in the past, a rescheduled date quickly surfaces. That was not the case this time.

The quickness of Vilsack's comments on MCOOL clearly suggest at least he wanted to get this topic addressed before Obama's visit to Canada. I do know there was some caution about the topic expressed among USDA career people. From a transparency perspective, it is unusual for a Cabinet official to brief private industry proponents of a rule change before the decisions are publicly issued. Sources also note they were very surprised that mainstream livestock and pork producer groups were not part of Vilsack/USDA briefings on the matter.

Some sources say the lack of subcabinet personnel in place, and the White House focus on the stimulus package and other financial rescue programs have likely led to some issues like MCOOL not being properly vetted.

A veteran contact said, "In the case of Vilsack, this could be another example of a former state governor learning that you cannot do things the same way at the federal level as you could do at the state level.”

Some sources say it will be interesting to determine if USDA's Office of General Counsel was consulted or weighed into Vilsack's proposed changes for MCOOL.

Further, some wonder if Vilsack is willing to effectively provide meat packers with two sets rules to choose from on MCOOL, why isn't he as open to giving farmers a similar situation when it comes to things like what's considered "actively engaged" in farming or other other provisions of U.S. farm law.


NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.


 

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