Washington Watch: WTO Talks Loom Large
Dairy industry representatives increasingly view the next round of WTO talks as critical for the U.S. dairy industry, as it seeks to open global markets to more dairy products. U.S. negotiators attending this month's Doha Round in Hong Kong are pushing for lower tariffs and fewer subsidies, but in the past have run into stiff opposition, especially in Europe.
Rep. Bob Goodlatte, chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, has expressed strong disappointment with the EU's determined effort to include geographic indications protections for food names in the WTO agreement. The EU position would restrict the worldwide use of such food names as parmesan and feta cheese.
U.S. Trade Representative Robert Portman told the committee the major threat to the current round of talks is a lack of progress. Subsidies have also been a major sticking point. According to Portman, the EU is able to subsidize its farmers three-to-four times as much as the United States does. Worldwide, the average agricultural tariffs are about 62% while the U.S. tariffs are about 12%.
Milk producers are taking issue with a recent USDA decision, in the HP Hood case. An administrative law judge ruled that the product, Carb Countdown, should not be classified as a Class I product, but instead should be a priced at a Class II level. The National Milk Producers Federation says the decision will be costly for milk producers, who will not only get less for the milk they supply to Hood, but will also be forced to make refunds to the company. The judge ruled that USDA was miscalculating the level of milk solids contained in Carb Countdown, and was thus paying the highest value for milk under the Federal Milk Marketing Order system.
"Low-carb products such as this one are designed to compete with and replace traditional Class I products like conventional fluid milk," said NMPF CEO Jerry Kozak.
"But as a Class II product, they don't return the same price to farmers, and that is a potentially major threat to our producers' revenue," he said.
Congress may consider streamlining rules covering food labels. Rep. Mike Rogers (R-MI) and Rep. Ed Towns (D-NY) have introduced the National Uniformity for Foods Act (H.R. 4167) that would create national, uniform food safety standards and warning requirements, replacing what backers call a patchwork of state and federal regulations that leave consumers and manufacturers at a disadvantage. The measure would amend the Federal Food, Drug and Cosmetic Act. The bill appears to have wide, bi-partisan support, with 159 co-sponsors.