Final meat labeling regulations rekindle international debate
By TIM HEARDEN
The U.S. Department of Agriculture finalized its revised mandatory meat-labeling rule May 23, reigniting an international debate that could complicate American trade relations with Canada and Mexico.
The final rule modifies the labeling provisions for muscle cuts of beef, pork and other meats to include information about where animals were born, raised and slaughtered, and it removes the allowance for commingling of cuts from different countries.
The rule’s unveiling follows a 60-day comment period and comes in response to a World Trade Organization appellate panel’s concerns that the original law, enacted as part of the 2008 Farm Bill, failed to adequately fulfill its objective of providing consumers with information on the origin of food.
The new requirements please the Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America, which had argued vociferously for country-of-origin labeling and characterized the WTO’s actions as an affront to American sovereignty.
"We were pleasantly surprised at the extent to which the USDA has defended country-of-origin labeling against the WTO’s actions," R-CALF chief executive officer Bill Bullard said. "We are extremely pleased by their action.
"It (the new rule) provides consumers with more information and more accurate information," he said. "Before, a label that simply said, ‘Product of the U.S. and Canada’, really was of little value to consumers. Knowing where the animal was raised and slaughtered really gives the consumer information about what was the value added to the product."
However, the new rule drew fresh criticism from the Canadian Cattlemen’s Association, which argues the U.S. continues to "discriminate" against cattle imports. The group complains the existing labeling law has cost cattle producers north of the border approximately $25 to $40 per head since its inception, totaling about $640 million per year.
The U.S.’ largest beef industry group, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association, asserts the USDA’s latest rule will not bring the United States into compliance with the WTO and could result in retaliatory tariffs or other trade sanctions that would harm American producers.
"While trying to make an untenable mandate fit with our international trade obligations, USDA chose to set up U.S. cattle producers for financial losses," NCBA president Scott George, a Wyoming dairy and cattle producer, said in a statement. "Moreover, the rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label."
However, the advocacy group Consumer Federation of America asserted this month its survey found that 90 percent of a sample of 1,000 American adults support mandatory country-of-origin labels on packages of fresh meat, and 87 percent favor requiring food sellers to list where animals were born, raised and processed.
The USDA revised the labeling law after the WTO’s Appellate Body last June overturned a lower panel’s finding that mandatory country-of-origin labeling on beef and pork sold in the U.S. amounted to a trade barrier against Canada and Mexico.
However, the Appellate Body did agree with the lower panel’s assertion that COOL has a detrimental impact on imported livestock because its record-keeping and verification requirements create an incentive for processors to use exclusively domestic livestock.
U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack issued a statement May 23 that his agency "remains confident that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations."
Agricultural Marketing Service Country-of-Origin Labeling: http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/COOL
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