THE Office of Management & Budget (OMB) proposed an update to the U.S. country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law, which continues to draw praise and criticism alike.
The release of the proposed rule follows a June 29 finding by the World Trade Organization that the implementation of COOL was inconsistent with certain trade obligations.
The proposed rule, published in the March 12 Federal Register, will require that each animal production step be printed on the labels of muscle cuts of meat. It will also remove the ability of packing facilities to commingle livestock from multiple origins and apply the same label on the meat from those livestock.
COOL was passed as a part of the 2002 farm bill and was amended in the 2008 farm bill. Mexico and Canada challenged the rule. On Dec. 4, 2012, WTO issued a ruling that directed the U.S. to bring COOL into compliance with its decision by May 23.
Meat packers and livestock groups said the proposed COOL rule exacerbates an already flawed concept.
Collin Woodall, vice president of government affairs for the National Cattlemen's Beef Assn., said instead of providing the industry with more flexibility, the updated rule creates additional segregation and labeling requirements with extra recordkeeping that, in turn, will cost more for consumers and packers.
Woodall explained that the segregation requirements were the reason Canada and Mexico first challenged the COOL law.
"We don't think this will pass the 'smell test' by WTO," he said, and if it doesn't, it could set up a scenario for retaliation.
American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle added that the new rule is "even more onerous, disruptive and expensive than the current regulation (that was implemented) in 2009."
He added that one of the proposed changes would require a plant or grocery retailer that currently uses the label "Product of the U.S." to now use the label "Born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S."
"The bottom line: mandatory country-of-origin labeling is conceptually flawed, in our view and in the eyes of our trading partners," Boyle said. "Requiring us now to provide even more information at a greater cost when evidence shows that consumers, by and large, are not reading the current country-of-origin information is an ill-conceived public policy option."
Woodall noted that Kansas State University released a report last fall that found that demand for meat products covered by the measure has not been affected by mandatory COOL implementation and that most Americans are unaware of mandatory COOL and do not look for meat origin information. (The report is at www.agmanager.info/livestock/policy/Tonsor_KSU_FactSheet_MCOOL_11-13-12.pdf.)
On the other side of the coin, supporters of the original COOL law praised the OMB rule revision.
Sen. Tim Johnson (D., S.D.) said, "As the original author of the COOL legislation, I am glad the (U.S. Department of Agriculture) has put forward this proposed rule so Americans can be further informed about the origin of the meat they feed their families."
National Farmers Union president Roger Johnson called the proposed COOL rule "an excellent response" to WTO's decision.
"By requiring further clarity in labels and stronger recordkeeping, the set of rules released are a win-win for farmers, ranchers and consumers," he said.
In February, the farmers union and other groups released a legal analysis detailing the options available for the U.S. to successfully comply with the WTO ruling on COOL.
The analysis concluded that an effective way is to provide more information and more accurate details to consumers. It would not require producers or processors to collect additional information, nor would it increase food cost to consumers because OMB has determined that the changes are not economically significant, according to the analysis.
Johnson said the proposed rule is consistent with the legal analysis.
Comments on the proposed rule must be received by April 11 and should be submitted electronically at www.regulations.com or to Julie Henderson, Director, USDA, AMS, LPS, COOL Division; 1400 Independence Ave. S.W., Rm. 2620-S, Washington, D.C. 20250; fax (202) 260-4486.