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If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it

Dec 21, 2015

I have a little bit of good news to start the week. The United States managed, barely, to avoid crippling sanctions that would have cost Michigan farmers hundreds of millions of dollars over the next few years.

Several years ago, Congress passed a law that required “country of origin labeling,” known as COOL, for all meat products, no matter where they were from.

That might have been justified for China, where tainted meat and pet food scandals have been legion. But it made no sense when applied to Canada, our biggest trading partner, a nation with whom we have virtually free trade, and whose standards are as high, or higher, than our own.

The new labeling law also violated our treaties with Mexico.

But it really played havoc with Canada. For years, American and Canadian ranchers along the border sold hogs and beef back and forth. The U.S. Department of Agriculture said there had never been any problem with Canadian meat. Now, suddenly, Washington was saying any animal from Canada had to be segregated, penned and slaughtered separately.

That added expense, and American packing plants stopped buying Canadian meat. Ottawa filed complaints with the WTO, the World Trade Organization, which ruled against the United States – four times. The Canadians blamed Michigan’s senior U.S. Senator Debbie Stabenow, the former chair of the U.S. Agriculture Committee.

She said she saw the issue differently, that this was more a case of huge meat producers trying to stifle small ones.

But in any event, the WTO said what we were doing was illegal, and two weeks ago, authorized Canada and Mexico to levy a billion dollars a year in punitive tariffs against American agriculture, including products like fruits, vegetables and pasta.

The sanctions could have kicked in this week. A Canadian official told me that once the tariffs were in place, it could have taken as long as three years to get them removed.

That made it clear we needed to work fast.

“It is critical that we come together to resolve this issue so that our businesses do not face the cost of retaliation,” Stabenow said five days ago. Finally, language to repeal COOL was inserted into the annual government appropriations bill.

Both houses of Congress passed it, and President Obama signed it into law Friday night. The next day, I heard from Canada that the crisis was over, in a joint statement from Canada’s minister of international trade and Mexico’s secretary of the economy.

“We are very pleased … we look forward to the restoration of full access to the U.S. market for Canadian cattle and hogs and Mexican cattle, as this will benefit (all) our farmers and our economies,” they said. Americans, especially cattlemen, breathed similar sighs of relief.

This is a story that didn’t get a thousandth of the press we devote to Donald Trump, but had this not been fixed, it would have had a devastating impact on Michigan’s farm economy, which would have had a ripple effect across the state.

And while this had a happy ending, we’d do well to remember something every farmer knows and every legislator ought to learn. If it ain’t broke … it may not be a good idea to try to fix it.

Jack Lessenberry is Michigan Radio's political analyst. Views expressed in his essays are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of Michigan Radio, its management or the station licensee, The University of Michigan