A coalition of 229 farm, rural, faith, consumer and environmental organizations from 45 states delivered a letter urging the U.S. Department of Agriculture to protect the integrity of Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) for meat products.
The 2008 Farm Bill included mandatory COOL provisions for beef, pork, poultry, fresh and frozen fruits and vegetables and some nuts, but Canada and Mexico successfully challenged the implemented rules for meat products at the World Trade Organization as a barrier to international trade. The USDA has issued proposed new rules that to clarify COOL to comply with the WTO decision.
The proposed rules that the USDA issued in early March strengthen the COOL labels by requiring that all meat from animals born, raised and processed in the United States will bear a “born, raised and slaughtered in the USA” label instead of "Product of the USA."
"The only acceptable way to respond to the WTO challenge is to make labels more informative for consumers, not water them down," the coalition wrote. "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."
The National Farmers Union, a member of the coalition, submitted its comments individually to USDA this week. NFU said it supports the proposed rule’s requirement that each specific production step be labeled with the country in which it takes place. This will provide more information than the current method of labeling multiple countries of origin without specifying which step occurs in which country. NFU also supports the elimination of comingling allowances for muscle cuts, which will reduce confusion for consumers.
The NFU comments also suggested additional ways to strengthen COOL rules. By broadening the definition of “processing” and “processed foods,” COOL standards could be applied to more products, and more regulatory adjustments could be made to encourage a standard method of COOL for food service establishments.
After USDA announced the rule change, the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn. (NCBA) said the amended rule would further hinder trading relationships with Canada and Mexico who filed the WTO complaint.
"The requirement that all products sold at retail be labeled with information noting the birth, raising and slaughter will place additional recordkeeping burdens on processors and retailers, contrary to the administration’s assertion," said NCBA president Scott George. "Moreover, this combined with the elimination of the ability to comingle muscle cuts, will only further add to the costs of processing non-U.S. born, raised and slaughtered products. 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.”
The comment period closes on April 11.