The wait is (kind of) over. Last fall, trade authorities in the U.S., Mexico and Canada agreed to a trilateral free trade agreement (USMCA) that replaces the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

The finer points of automotive manufacturing earned most of the headlines during the protracted negotiation period, but dairy trade was another key sticking point. Here, we hope to offer some details and context to provide a clearer picture of how things will look once the deal is effective.

Or more like if. The deal first must survive legislative review in three separate national capitals. As we discuss later, when it comes to lawmakers and politics, nothing is a done deal until it’s a done deal.

Opening Canadian markets

USMCA increases the duty-free volume of a wide range of American products allowed in Canada. According to data released by the USDA, access is granted to:

  • 50,000 metric tons (MT) of additional fluid milk

  • 12,500 MT of additional cheese

  • 10,500 MT of additional cream

  • 7,500 MT of additional skim milk powder

  • 4,500 MT of additional butter and cream powder

  • 1,380 MT of additional concentrated and condensed milk

  • 4,135 MT of additional yogurt and buttermilk

  • 520 MT of additional powdered buttermilk

  • 2,760 MT of additional products of natural milk constituents

  • 690 MT of additional ice cream and ice cream mixes

  • 690 MT of additional other dairy

  • 4,134 MT of additional whey (By year 10, the over-quota tariff on whey will be eliminated.)

  • Tariffs on margarine are eliminated after five years.

The agreement creates a six-year ramp-up to reach the levels listed above; smaller increases then kick in each year afterward for 13 years.


The Canadian dairy lobby isn’t happy about this. Stakeholders have lobbed stinging critiques at the government with phrases like “death by a thousand cuts” and comparing the terms of the agreement to a slow bleed.

But just because the agreement allows U.S. producers to sell (marginally) more product into Canada, it doesn’t mean Canadian buyers must buy it. And even if U.S. producers supply Canadian buyers at the full volume allowed under USMCA, it still only amounts to something like one extra truckload of milk a day.

And for Canadian dairy farmers, any business they lose as a result of the deal would likely be covered by compensation as promised by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau.

Elimination of Canada’s Class 6 and 7

The thorniest issue with the U.S. and Canada’s dairy trade relationship was the creation of new Canadian milk classes for ultrafiltered milk. Prior to the introduction of the classes, plants in southern Canada relied on milk collected from Wisconsin, Michigan, New York and other northern states.

The new formulas priced Canadian milk below the world market price. Canadian processors logically switched to buying cheaper domestic product. The result was a sudden loss of business for dairy farmers in regions of the U.S. already plagued by an oversupply of milk.

The elimination of Canada’s Class 6 and Class 7 theoretically means the playing field is once again evened. We’ll see if that happens in practice. The new trade deal doesn’t account for the possibility Canada may attempt to restrict its markets in some other way.

Preserving our relationship with Mexico

As it pertains to dairy trade between the U.S. and Mexico, USMCA and the NAFTA it replaces are functionally identical. That’s a good thing, for the most part, because U.S. dairy exports to Mexico are worth $1.2 billion annually. It’s by far the most lucrative dairy trading relationship we have.

Canada, our second-most valuable dairy trading partner, accounts for a little over half that value.

Even though duty-free dairy trade between Mexico and the U.S. is enshrined in the new trade deal, the U.S. needs to end its tariffs on steel and aluminum before Mexico agrees to end its retaliation so the normal dairy trading relationship can resume.

It’s unclear if the language of the steel and aluminum tariffs permits the U.S. to selectively enforce them or if rolling them back on Mexico can only occur if they’re rolled back for everyone else, too.

What happens next?

Since all heads of state have signed the agreement, it’s up to the national legislatures. According to this ratification timeline, it’s not likely lawmakers in Mexico or Canada will up-end the deal. That’s because Mexican law appears not to allow the Congress to change the text of the agreement; they just get to review it before taking an up-or-down vote. In Canada, Parliament will debate and vote on the deal, but those votes appear not to be legally binding. That power is left up to Prime Minister Trudeau and his Cabinet.

Things are a lot trickier in the U.S.

Starting Dec. 1, Congress had 105 days to identify changes in federal law that must be made to accommodate the provisions of the USMCA and then write an implementation bill. Because both the Senate and House will write their own version of the bill, each chamber would then have 45 days to reconcile the two versions. An agreed bill will then be sent to President Trump.

Problem is, the implementation bill that emerges from the process may not be as much to Trump’s liking, since it will be the result of a compromise between a newly split Congress. Democrats assumed control of the House of Representatives Jan. 3.

Worst-case scenario is: Congress won’t agree, and the USMCA will not go into effect at all. If that happens, we fall back on NAFTA, which has no expiration date.

Clearly, there’s a lot still up in the air.  end mark

Ted Jacoby III is the president and CEO of T.C. Jacoby & Company, one of North America’s premier dairy product trading companies. He holds a food science degree from Cornell University and an MBA from Washington University in St. Louis.