* Labeling program ruled unfair to Canada, Mexico meat
* U.S. had asked for until 2014 to comply
By Rod Nickel
Dec 4 (Reuters) - The United States must bring its country-of-origin meat labeling rules into compliance with a earlier World Trade Organization ruling by May 23, 2013, according to a WTO decision on Tuesday, the Canadian government said.
The WTO ruled on June 29 that the U.S. country-of-origin labeling program, known as COOL, unfairly discriminated against Canada and Mexico because it gave less favorable treatment to beef and pork imported from those countries than to U.S. meat.
That decision gave the United States an unspecified amount of time to comply.
The labeling program has led to a sharp reduction in U.S. imports of Canadian pigs and cattle, because it raised costs for U.S. packers by forcing them to segregate those animals from U.S. livestock. Some U.S. groups, however, have said COOL offers consumers valuable information about the origin of their food.
"We expect that the U.S. will bring itself into compliance with its WTO obligations by May 2013 as determined by the arbitrator for the benefit of producers on both sides of the border," Canadian International Trade Minister Ed Fast and Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said in a joint statement.
"We are particularly pleased that the arbitrator determined a reasonable period of time close to that proposed by Canada and Mexico, as opposed to the much longer period suggested by the United States."
According to the Canadian ministers, the United States asked that it be given until Jan. 23, 2014 to comply. Canada and Mexico asked for compliance by early 2013.
Meat labels became mandatory in March 2009 after years of debate. U.S. consumer and some farm groups supported the requirement, saying consumers should have information to distinguish between U.S. and foreign products.
Big meat processors opposed the provision, which they said would unnecessarily boost costs and disrupt trade.
The U.S. labeling law requires grocers to put labels on cuts of beef, pork, lamb, chicken and ground meat or post signs that list the origin of the meat.
U.S. officials have said the WTO's June ruling allowed the United States to continue to require country-of-origin labels, but Washington will have to alter the program to ensure it does not create an impermissible trade barrier.
"The United States remains committed to ensuring that consumers are provided with information about the origin of the beef and pork products they buy at the retail level," Nkenge Harmon, a spokesperson for U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk, said on Tuesday. "We intend to bring the COOL requirements into compliance within the period of time established by the arbitrator, and we will continue to work with USDA, Congress, and interested stakeholders in order to do so."