Canadian pork producers and packers are deeply concerned about the U.S. Farm Bill provisions for country-of-origin labeling that will become voluntary this fall and perhaps mandatory in 2004.

Canadians have emphasized that the regulations need to avoid making it more difficult for imports than domestic products, else Canada will file a challenge under the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), says Martin Rice, chief of staff for the Canadian Pork Council.

“Everyone wants to avoid trade action,” he says, so Canadians feel that's working in their favor. The Canadian farmers and packers have full support from Prime Minister Jean Chretien, Trade Minister Pierre Pettigrew and Agriculture Minister Lyle Vanclief. They have all condemned the Farm Bill's country-of-origin provisions.

Canadians are also cheered by those in the U.S. who are opposing the call for labeling, such as the American Meat Institute, representing packers, and the American Food Institute, representing supermarket chains. Those associations are saying this could be the thin edge of the wedge to introduce other labeling requirements, such as GMOs (genetically modified organisms) and animal welfare practices. Some legal advisers have indicated there are grounds for a constitutional challenge under the right to freedom of expression.

The Canadian Pork Council says country-of-origin labeling can only work if there is a mandatory traceability system in place. A mandatory traceability provision was not included in the Farm Bill. Rice wonders how retailers will be able to satisfy program auditors if they can't trace their meat products back to the animals' origins.

Michael Rowe, vice-president of finance and procurement for Canada's largest pork packer, Maple Leaf Pork, says the legislation is definitely raising concerns in their head offices, but so far the company hasn't taken a public stand.

Manitoba's provincial marketing board is showing the greatest concern because a high percentage of its hogs are marketed as weaners to U.S. buyers. Cow-calf producers in Alberta, British Columbia and Saskatchewan have similar concerns about their brisk trade in feeders. U.S. farmers who buy their weaners and feeders are opposing country-of-origin labeling because they fear packers and retailers won't buy their hogs or cattle if the pork and beef has to be labeled “imported from Canada.”

Manitoba Pork is pressing the federal and provincial governments to help fund an industry impact analysis. If the analysis indicates the market costs will be steep, Manitoba may encourage producers to finish more of their hogs, figuring the pork could still be exported, perhaps at higher prices to Japan and other overseas markets. Some Canadians feel U.S. consumers may even prefer high-quality Canadian pork and beef. In that case, country-of-origin labeling will backfire on U.S. farmers by handing Canadians a larger share of the U.S. market.