USDA implements COOL law | TSLN.com

USDA implements COOL law

Jerry Hagstrom
DTN Political Correspondent

TSLN file photoUSDA clarified language in the country-of-origin labeling rule and how packers could label meat when they slaughter animals from more than one country at their packing plants.

WASHINGTON (DTN) – Country-of-origin labeling for red meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and certain other food items finally went into effect Tuesday, with meatpackers complaining that Agriculture Department made the rules stricter at the last minute and labeling advocates complaining that USDA is not enforcing the rules strictly enough.

Controversial when it was passed into law in the 2002 farm bill, fighting over COOL continued right up to Tuesday with USDA having to come out on Friday and clarify language in the rule and how packers could label meat when they slaughter animals from more than one country at their packing plants.

The 2002 farm bill required labeling of red meat, fresh fruits and vegetables, peanuts, fish and shellfish. Meatpackers and retailers fought the program, and Congress delayed labeling of all products except fish and shellfish. The 2008 farm bill simplified the labeling program for red meat, fresh fruits and vegetables and added chicken, goat meat, peanuts, pecans, ginseng and macadamia nuts to the list of covered products.

Ranchers and growers who pushed for labeling believe that American consumers will prefer U.S.-produced meat and other products, but the law contained a provision that allowed meatpackers that had only enough U.S. cattle for part of a production day to also slaughter cattle from Canada or Mexico and label the meat from that production as of “mixed origin.”

The National Farmers Union, R-CALF USA and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association – core groups that pushed the labeling law – protested that meat from cattle that are born, raised and slaughtered in the United States should be labeled as U.S. beef. Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer, a former North Dakota governor, said that he did not believe large-scale mixed labeling was the goal of the groups that lobbied hard for the program.

Last week 32 senators also wrote USDA that using a label indicating that the beef was of mixed origin when it was really from the United States would not be living up to the spirit of the law.

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On Friday, USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service, which is in charge of the program, put a clarifying statement on its Web site that said, “It is not permissible to label derived from livestock of U.S. origin with a mixed origin label if solely U.S. origin meat was produced during the production day.” The American Meat Institute, which represents the big packers and opposed labeling, said in a news release Tuesday that the meat industry and retailers “are working hard to change course” to comply with USDA’s “revised implementation guidance” but that the tougher rules would slow down compliance and raise costs.

National Farmers Union President Tom Buis said in an e-mail that the new USDA guidance “is better, but I am still concerned this gives the packers a big loophole.” Buis said he is concerned that a packer could slaughter one Mexican or Canadian cow on a production day and then be able to label all the meat from that day’s work as being a product of the United States and/or Mexico. Buis, however, praised Schafer and Agriculture Undersecretary for Marketing and Regulatory Services Bruce Knight for “trying to at least send a message to the packers that they are going against both the intent of the law and spirit of the agreement.”

R-CALF USA took a tougher stand, urging its members to call members of Congress to tell them that USDA is “undermining the COOL law.” Senate Agriculture Chairman Tom Harkin said in a news release Tuesday that “USDA’s present guidance for COOL would still allow the meat industry and retailers to label all meat as being from multiple countries even if most of the meat is exclusively of U.S. origin. This loophole denies information to consumers who want to buy meat exclusively from the United States, and it negates the advantages U.S. meat producers expected in marketing their products to consumers under COOL.”

For more information on the country-of-origin labeling law, visit http://www.ams.usda.gov/cool

jerry hagstrom can be reached at jerry.hagstrom@dtn.com