Schafer makes COOL law final |

Schafer makes COOL law final

Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) – Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer has signed the final rule for mandatory country of origin labeling for red meat, chicken and certain other agricultural products, even though some farm and ranch groups said the final rule should be left to President-elect Barack Obama’s administration.

Despite announcing that the final rule had been signed, USDA officials declined to say what, if any, changes had been made in the meat-labeling rule.

Schafer made the announcement at a news conference with Deputy Agriculture Secretary Chuck Conner touting the Bush administration’s accomplishments in agriculture.

Conner said the labeling rule would be sent to the Federal Register on Friday, but said he was not sure what day it would be published because there is a backlog of rules waiting for publication. Schafer and Conner said they were bound by the Administrative Procedures Act not to discuss details of the rule until it is published.

Meat groups have been divided about whether Schafer should sign the final country of origin labeling rule or leave that task to the incoming Obama administration. The National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, which opposed labeling, had urged Schafer to sign the final rule. The National Farmers Union, which promoted labeling, said the rule should not be written until April when a six-month implementation period will be completed. Farmers Union had expressed intense displeasure when the interim rule came out because some meatpackers said they were planning to label all beef North American. USDA issued a clarification of the rule so that meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States must be labeled as a U.S. product. Schafer said Thursday he believed that clarification resolved the most contentious issues surrounding labeling.

Conner said it would have been “unfair to the marketplace” not to issue the rule. Labeling went into effect on Sept. 30, but USDA has said it will not prosecute violators of the law until April.

The issue is further complicated because Canadian and Mexican governments, which contend the labeling violates trade laws, have requested consultations with the United States in the World Trade Organization over the issue.

Schafer portrayed himself as a strong advocate of labeling. Noting that he had signed a country of origin labeling law in North Dakota in 1997 when he was governor, Schafer said he believed the final rule has struck a balance and will allow consumers to make a choice. “This is not a food safety issue, a competition issue or a trade issue. This is a marketing issue,” he said.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis told DTN he could not comment on the rule because he had not seen the final version.

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