By MEGGIE. I. FOSTER
WASHINGTON, D.C. — In order to appease requests from the World Trade Organization, the USDA recently issued a proposed rule to modify the labeling provisions for muscle cut commodities covered under the ultra-scrutinized Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program.
“The USDA expects that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the current mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” said USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack on March 8.
Essentially the proposed rule would modify the labeling provisions for muscle cut covered commodities to require the origin designations to include information about where each of the production steps (i.e. born, raised, slaughtered) occurred and would remove the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts.
In June 2012, the Appellate Body of the WTO affirmed an earlier WTO Panel decision finding that the United States’ COOL requirements for certain meat commodities discriminated against Canadian and Mexican livestock imports and thus were inconsistent with the WTO Agreement on Technical Barriers to Trade. The United States has until May 23 to come into compliance with the WTO ruling on COOL, according to Vilsack.
Farm groups come in strongly on both sides of the issue.
In an April 2 letter to Vilsack, 229 farm, rural, faith environmental and consumer organizations strongly supported the proposed new rule, concluding that “the only acceptable way to respond to the WTO challenge is to make labels more informative for consumers, not water them down. U.S. farmers and ranchers are proud of what they produce and should be allowed to promote their products. Consumers deserve clear, direct and informative labels. Providing more accurate labels with more information is a win-win situation for producers and consumers alike.”
One of the 229 farm groups, National Grange, a fraternal agricultural and rural community service organization, added that the rule change helps to protect the integrity of COOL for meat products. “The National Grange has supported Country of Origin Labeling for quite some time,” said Grace Boatright, legislative director for National Grange. “We’re neck deep in the information age and people want more information about their food, including how it’s grown and where it’s grown and they have a right to know those details. Boatright continued, adding that “I also think COOL will be great for American agriculture. We have the safest, most abundant food supply in the world and I think that every farmer and rancher in this country would be proud to stamp “Grown in the USA” across our goods.”
Strong support, opposition
However, not all farm groups come in so supportive of the proposed COOL rule change. Take, for instance, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Assoc. (NCBA).
“The NCBA has maintained that there is no regulatory fix that can be put in place to bring the current COOL rule into compliance with our World Trade Organization obligation or that will satisfy our top two trading partners; Mexico and Canada,” said NCBA President Scott George, a cattlemen from Cody, Wyo. “With the amended rule, the USDA has proven that to be true. The proposed amendments will only further hinder our trading relationships with our partners, raise the cost of beef for consumers and result in retaliatory tariffs being placed on our export products.”
The NCBA contends that the new proposed requirement for all products sold at retail to be labeled with information noting the birth, raising and slaughter will only place additional recordkeeping burdens on processors and retailers, contrary to the administration’s assertion.
“Moreover, this combined with the elimination of the ability to co-mingle muscle cuts, will only further add to the costs of processing non-U.S. born, raised and slaughtered products,” said George. “The end result will be hesitancy to process imported product and increased instances of less favorable treatment of foreign product, giving our trading partners a stronger case at the WTO.”
Under COOL, which became effective March 16, 2009, retailers must provide their customers with information about the origin of various food products, including fruits, vegetables, fish and meats.
“Mandatory COOL requirements help consumers make informed purchasing decisions about the food they buy,” according to a statement from the USDA, furthering explaining that the USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) is responsible for the implementation, administration and enforcement of all COOL regulations.
According to the National Farmers’ Union, in addition to the April 2 letter to Vilsack, nearly 35,600 petition signatures were sent to the USDA demanding that the integrity of COOL be protected in the face of the WTO scrutiny as of April 9.
“The outpouring of support for COOL makes it clear that USDA is doing the right thing proposing strengthened and more informative labels, said NFU President Roger Johnson. Petitions were delivered by farm groups including the NFU, Western Organization of Resource Councils and R-CALF USA and consumer groups including Food & Water Watch. “People have the right to know where the food they feed their families comes from and the proposed COOL rules significantly improve the disclosure of information to consumers,” added Johnson.
With the notice of the proposed rule posted on the Federal Register on March 11, the comment period has now officially closed, effective April 11. For continued updates on COOL, including the proposed rule, visit www.ams.usda.gov