THE North American Meat Assn. — the 2012 product of a conjoining of the North American Meat Processors Assn. and the National Meat Assn. — fulfilled its promise to be the leading North American meat industry organization when it convened its Outlook Conference this month.
Taking center stage at the conference was Gerry Ritz, federal agriculture minister of Canada, and he was accompanied by agriculture ministers from several Canadian provinces.
Ritz chose this event to very carefully but firmly announce that Canada is angry. He was referring, of course, to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule.
Maybe a better explanation of what he was expressing was this quotation from the 1976 movie "Network": "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore."
When the head of Canada's counterpart to USDA chooses a venue to explain his government's reaction to the new COOL rule and his words aren't very pretty, that venue has to be very important. Suddenly, what might have been seen as a modest stage becomes a world stage.
To understand the enormity of Ritz's speech and the place he chose to make it, the U.S.-Canadian border is the longest "non-militarized" border in the world, and the trade that flows between the two nations that has been essentially free and unencumbered is in danger of becoming costly and "encumbered" with strategically placed restrictive tariffs.
A trade war over meat industry labeling issues could endanger billions of dollars of commerce and thousands of jobs.
The original version of COOL was struck down when Canada and Mexico challenged it at the World Trade Organization. After a decade of wrangling, it was struck down as overly restrictive.
USDA promised to take another look at it and come back with something that would be acceptable to all parties.
Instead, Vilsack and company came back with a new COOL rule that most observers considered even more restrictive.
Canada, which was playing nicely with Mexico in the North American sandbox, justifiably saw the COOL revision as a slap-in-the-face, kick-to-the-groin rejection of a ruling that everyone agreed to honor.
Not willing to go through this whole process for another 10 years, Canada placed its immediate hopes on language in the upcoming U.S. farm bill that would roll back the new COOL rule.
Placing hope in the farm bill, though, means actually believing that Congress can get its act together long enough to pass the long-overdue, recently bifurcated bill. Those Canadians sure are optimistic.
If there is no relief in the farm bill, Canada stands ready and willing to smack cross-border trade upside its head with some carefully chosen and very painful tariffs.
As kind and friendly as Canada's government has been since that country was founded shortly after our Civil War, there is no doubt that they have the political will to trigger a full-scale trade war if American interests refuse to abide by the WTO ruling.
*Chuck Jolley is president of Jolley & Associates, a marketing and public relations firm that concentrates on the food industry.