Obama administration officials defended the U.S. mandatory country-of-origin labeling law for meat, fresh produce and other agricultural commodities after news that its northern neighbor is seeking international intervention to stop the law.

Canada's request to establish a dispute settlement panel at the World Trade Organization is largely driven by unhappiness with the meat labeling provisions. The request will be heard at the Oct. 23 meeting of the WTO's Dispute Settlement Body.

Canadian government officials said Oct. 7 that the country-of-origin labeling requirements hurt the ability of Canadian cattle and hog exporters to compete fairly.

Produce industry lobbyists said fruit and vegetable provisions are not at issue so far.

"We don't anticipate anything initially that will be of concern," said Ray Gilmer, vice president of communications for United Fresh Produce Association, Washington, D.C.

"As I understand it, it is a meat issue that is causing the dispute but it something we are watching closely because what we found with COOL is that meat issues always end up affecting the produce side," added Tom O'Brien, Washington, D.C., representative of the Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association.

Domestic and international objections to the COOL law from meat industry sources have been much more vocal than from the fresh produce sector.

Canada first sought WTO consultations with the U.S in late 2008 and the two countries held more consultations in June but failed to resolve the issue.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Villach and U.S. Trade Representative Ron Kirk on Oct. 7 said in a statement that the U.S. believes the implementation of the country of origin labeling law in the required by the 2008 farm bill met World Trade Organization obligations.

"Countries have agreed since long before the existence of the WTO that country-of-origin labeling is a legitimate policy," the statement said.

The 2008 farm bill requires country-of-origin labeling at retail for beef, lamb, pork, chicken, goat, fruits and vegetables.