Vilsack asks packers to tighten COOL | TSLN.com

Vilsack asks packers to tighten COOL

Jerry Hagstrom,
DTN Political Correspondent

WASHINGTON (DTN) – Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack is asking the nation’s meatpackers to voluntarily impose a stricter regime for country-of-origin labeling on meat than the rules the Bush administration published to implement the mandatory labeling provision of the 2008 farm bill.

Vilsack said Tuesday the announcement was made in preparation for President Barack Obama’s trip to Canada on Thursday. It’s understood that the Canadians, who export a lot of cattle, pigs and meat to the United States and have already filed a World Trade Organization case against the new program, won’t like the new rules. Canadians claim that they are losing business or getting lower prices for their cattle because American meatpackers do not like to segregate their production lines.

In an interview, Vilsack said he expects Obama to be asked about meat labeling and that the United States would not be a “good friend” if he were to say nothing about the labeling issue and then impose a stricter regime at a later date. He also said that any decisions about the trade implications of the labeling program would be made by President Obama.

The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative “could come to the president and say this law is creating issues,” Vilsack said, “but the president will decide whether to propose changes.”

Vilsack said he was aware that the Bush administration held talks with the Canadians before issuing their rule, but he added, “My job is simply to follow the law. My job is not to make trade policy.”

Vilsack, who is a lawyer, said his interpretation of the law is that Congress believes “American consumers need to know and should know when something is an all-American product” and that the Bush rule did not carry out the law. Vilsack added he did not initiate a new round of rulemaking, as some farm groups and members of Congress had suggested, because Vilsack did not want “a vacuum that would be created by the process.”

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Vilsack said Tuesday that in a letter to be sent Wednesday he will formally ask the meat industry to make the changes. If the industry does not respond immediately, Vilsack said he will start a new rulemaking process. Vilsack also said he may convert his suggested voluntary regime into a mandatory rule at some point in the future.

In making the decision to ask the industry to cooperate, Vilsack appeared to be following the lead of House Agriculture Committee Chairman Collin Peterson, D-MN, who has said he expects the industry to label most meat from animals born, raised and slaughtered in the United States as coming from the United States rather than continue to use labels that say the meat may be from the United States, Canada or Mexico. The National Farmers Union and some members of Congress had asked Vilsack to rewrite the rule to require stricter labeling.

Under the Bush rule, meatpackers have been labeling a lot of meat of U.S. origin as of mixed origin, but Vilsack said he will ask the meatpackers to label each meat package so that the consumer can read the country in which the animal was born, the country in which it was raised, and the country in which it was slaughtered.

“Substantially altered” foods are exempt from the law, but Vilsack said Tuesday that the Bush rule gave processors too much latitude in deciding what that means. Vilsack said that a chicken that has been roasted has not been substantially altered and must be labeled.

He said he would also reject an argument from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association that beef cattle could be exported to the United States and slaughtered the next day and that the slaughtering would constitute such a substantial change that a steak should be labeled as a U.S. product. Vilsack said he believes the Canadian cattlemen are reading the law as they think it should have been written, not as it was written.

The Bush rule allows meat processors to co-mingle ground meat that has been processed within 60 days, but Vilsack said he has also asked the meat processors to reduce the number of days to 10.

Vilsack met with the meat industry Tuesday and said he will meet with labeling advocates sometime Tuesday as well. Vilsack also is calling members of Congress with an interest in the issue.

The Bush administration rule is scheduled to take effect on March 16, which made it fall within the group of rules that White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel announced the Obama administration would review.

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