USDA submits draft of new COOL rule

Feb 22, 2013
by WLJ

USDA has submitted a draft country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rule to the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) for review, according to an official who works for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS).

The World Trade Organization (WTO) recently required USDA to adjust COOL by May 23.

“While we cannot discuss the specifics of that draft rule, we can say that the draft rule proposes to modify the COOL labeling provisions for muscle cut meats, including beef (including veal), lamb (including mutton), pork, goat and chicken,” said Sam Jones-Ellard, AMS public affairs specialist.

USDA has not released a copy of the draft regulations presented to OMB. They will be subject to a comment period after OMB signs off on them. The regulations will apply to muscle cuts of beef, veal, lamb, pork, goat, and chicken.

Jones-Ellard said he was unable to give an estimated timeline of when the rule would be published, but noted that all interested parties will have an opportunity to comment on any proposed regulatory action.

The new regulations are intended to put the U.S. back into compliance with WTO without the need to go back to Congress.

The international trade attorneys Stewart and Stewart put together a plan for its clients, Food and Water Watch, Public Citizen, the National Farmers Union (NFU) and U.S. Cattlemen’s Association (US- CA), to show how the U.S. can achieve compliance without changing the law.

“Consumers deserve clear, transparent and informative COOL labels and WTO has no place meddling in American grocery carts,” said Food & Water Watch Executive Director Wenonah Hauter. “President Obama campaigned to protect country of origin labels in 2008 and he can do so again by implementing these straightforward improvements to COOL.”

The analysis said that an origin label that lists the country in which each of the production steps occurred would meet these statutory requirements while also conveying more origin information to consumers and thus improving the measure’s compatibility with WTO compliance.

The analysis suggests the following labels:

Label A: “Product of an animal born, raised, and slaughtered in the United States.”

Label B: “Product of an animal born in [Country X], and raised and slaughtered in the United States.”

Label C: “Product of an animal born and raised in [Country X], and slaughtered in the United States.”

Label D: “Product of an animal born, raised, and slaughtered in [Country X].”

In addition, where an animal is raised in more than one country, the B or C label for that animal would read: “Product of an animal born in [Country X], raised in [Country X and Country Y] and slaughtered in the United States.”

USCA said this plan would not create burdens for producers or processors, nor would it require them to collect any additional information.

“In addition, this should not in any way increase consumers’ retail prices, and that’s a very important point,” said USCA president Jon Wooster.

COOL was passed as a part of the Farm Security and Rural Investment Act of 2002 and amended in the 2008 Farm Bill.

After fully taking effect, both Mexico and Canada filed objections to COOL with the WTO, saying the labeling ads extra costs, putting their products at a disadvantage. Both a WTO panel and appellate body ruled against the U.S. COOL law.

The Stewart and Stewart memo says the deficiencies that must be addressed in the COOL regulations are: lack of information, no specifics for the listing order when multiple countries are involved, meat that is exclusively of U.S. origin may be listed as being of mixed origin, and the exemption for food not sold at retail.

“The comprehensive legal analysis demonstrates that the USDA can come into compliance with the WTO appellate body ruling by amending the COOL regulations,” NFU President Roger Johnson said. “Changes to the COOL legislation are not necessary to achieve compliance. U.S. producers are rightfully proud of their products and consumers want to know where their food comes from. Additionally, these remedies should not result in any increase in consumers’ retail prices. Achieving compliance is a win-win situation for all interested parties.”

WTO said that while the U.S. can require meat labeling, current U.S. COOL rules do not meet WTO standards, according to an NFU statement.

“Based on the analysis, we stand in support of tightening U.S. COOL regulations,” said USCA President Jon Wooster. “USCA is proud of our U.S. raised products and remain committed to this issue, while continuing to vigorously advocate for U.S. cattle producers as well as every consumer’s right to information regarding where their meat products originate and are raised.”

Wooster added, “USCA will continue to work with USTR and the administration to ensure preservation of the original intent of the COOL law. The changes necessary to bring implementation of the rule into compliance with the WTO ruling can be accomplished outside of the legislative arena and we are confident that record-keeping and recording measures may be eased through simple regulatory action.” — WLJ