US senator urges CAFTA delay over meat inspections

US senator urges CAFTA delay over meat inspections

WASHINGTON, Jan 25 (Reuters) – The United States must not implement a hard-won trade pact with Central America until those countries accept the U.S. meat inspection system, vital for giving the U.S. industry access to new markets, a top Senator said on Wednesday.

Senate Finance Committee Chairman Charles Grassley, an Iowa Republican, said he had written to U.S. Trade Representative Rob Portman, noting the countries had committed to recognize the U.S. meat inspection system as their own but that not all have done so.

He did not identify any of the countries by name.

The U.S.-Central America Free Trade Pact among the United States, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Nicaragua and the Dominican Republic — known as CAFTA-DR– was narrowly approved by Congress last summer after a bitter fight.

The White House had a harder time rounding up votes for CAFTA than for any other recent trade pact. Democrats oppose what they call weak labor and environment provisions, and some Republicans from textile and sugar-producing states fear job losses.

“The recognition of the U.S. meat inspection system by the CAFTA-DR countries was imminent at the time the CAFTA-DR implementing legislation was introduced in June 2005,” Grassley said in a letter to Portman, adding it formed “an important part of the context in which Congress approved the implementing bill.”

By recognizing the U.S. system, the CAFTA countries would accept the import eligibility of all USDA-approved meatpacking facilities, Grassley said. Some CAFTA countries currently require plant-by-plant inspections of individual U.S. facilities and these plant-by-plant inspections in effect limit exports of U.S. meat.

“I see no need for you to rush the implementation of the CAFTA-DR until this pending matter is resolved,” Grassley wrote.

A spokeswoman for the USTR’s office responded: “Having countries recognize the U.S. food safety system as equivalent is key prior to implementation of FTAs. DR-CAFTA countries clearly understood the need to recognize the U.S. food safety inspection system prior to implementation.”

“We are continuing to work with DR-CAFTA countries on implementation issues,” the spokeswoman added.

The United States missed its target date of Jan. 1 for implementing the CAFTA agreement, but said last month it hoped the countries involved would write it into law in the next couple of months.

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