Facing tariff threat from Canada, U.S. takes step toward repeal of disputed law

WASHINGTON — Facing the threat of punitive tariffs from Canada, the U.S. Congress took a first step Wednesday in backing away from a continental trade war.

Lawmakers voted to repeal a disputed meat-labelling law that has prompted threats of tariffs from Canada against a range of U.S. products including wine, chocolate and frozen orange juice.

That first step was the easy part: a repeal measure sailed through the U.S. House of Representatives with almost 70 per cent of the votes cast, including a crushing majority of Republicans and one-third of Democrats. It now faces what could be a more difficult test in the Senate.

The tally exceeded the hopes expressed earlier in the day by Canada’s ambassador.

Addressing an economic conference at the Canadian embassy, Gary Doer encouraged diplomats inside the room to get up and leave if it meant twisting a few more arms on Capitol Hill.

“I’d like to thank all of you for lobbying on our behalf,” Gary Doer told the group, which was attending a conference on labour mobility hosted by the Canadian American Business Council.

“If there’s anybody (in Congress) wavering, please call them. Leave this meeting! Pick up the phone.”

Doer said he wanted to see the measure pass the House with 250 votes — which would represent a healthy majority, with support from both U.S. political parties.

It wound up getting 300 votes.

That kind of bipartisanship would come in handy in the Senate, where a tougher fight is expected and where most bills require a 60-per-cent supermajority for adoption.

At issue are the U.S.’s mandatory country-of-origin labels for meat, which require grocery stickers explaining where livestock was born, raised and slaughtered.

Labelling defenders say consumers deserve to know where their meat comes from. Opponents say it’s simple protectionism, complicating imports without any food-safety or inspection benefits.

Since the World Trade Organization has sided with Canada and Mexico against the labelling, Canada has asked the WTO to approve US$3 billion in retaliatory tariffs and Mexico is expected to follow suit.

Tariffs could be imposed within a few months.

A California Democrat urged immediate action, to avoid a threatened 100 per cent tariff on wine from his state: “Canada will have to pay double for a bottle of good California wine,” Jim Costa said during the debate before the vote.

“If consumers in Canada see their price double, I suspect they’re going to buy their wine elsewhere.”

Several Democrats pushed back.

Instead of repealing the label law entirely, some want to create a watered-down version like a new North American label. One Democrat said there was time to work out a compromise — he called Canada’s $3-billion tariff demand over the top, given that American meat imports have actually gone up the last few years, and said it could be resisted at the WTO.

Another Democrat called it abnormal that meat might be sold without country-of-origin labels, when they’re required on other products like clothes, phones, even umbrellas.

Maine’s Chellie Pingree said parents want to know if they’re feeding their family chicken from the U.S., or from China: “I doubt there is a single consumer in America who says, ‘I want to know less about the food I’m eating.'”

She accused industry lobbyists of using the WTO findings as an excuse to achieve their own desired goal: gutting consumer-protection measures.

But the repeal-measure’s main sponsor interjected. Michael Conaway, a Texas Republican, noted that there currently are no imports of Chinese chicken in the U.S.

He said that if food safety was a real issue, restaurants would also have to label their meat — but they don’t.

That’s because the labelling law has nothing to do with food safety and inspection standards will go on with or without it, Conaway said.

Alexander Panetta, The Canadian Press

Note to readers: This is a corrected story. The previous version said the measure passed by 297 votes instead of 300