Washington, D.C. – On Friday, February 7, 2013, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) sent to the White House Office of Management and Budget (OMB) the agency’s much anticipated proposed rule that would modify regulations that implement the 2002 country of origin labeling (COOL) law. Under COOL, retailers are required to label beef, pork, lamb, chicken, fruits and vegetables and other food products with the name of the country from which the products were grown or produced.
On June 29, 2012, three panelists for the World Trade Organization (WTO), included among them a Mexican attorney, rendered an adverse decision against the United States’ COOL law in a complaint brought by the governments of Mexico and Canada. The panelists found that U.S. COOL reduces demand for cattle imports from Mexico and cattle and hog imports from Canada.
On December 4, 2012, the WTO issued a ruling that directed the United States to bring COOL into compliance with its June 29 decision by May 23, 2013. Since that time, the USDA and the U.S. Trade Representatives Office (USTR) have been considering whether to modify the COOL statute through congressional action, modify the COOL regulations through an agency rulemaking, or do both.
Although Congress first passed the COOL statute in 2002, USDA did not issue a final rule to implement COOL for meat products or fruits and vegetables until January 15, 2009, and the final rule did not take effect until March 16, 2009.
Soon after the final COOL rule took effect, R-CALF USA on July 22, 2009, submitted a formal complaint to USDA alleging that USDA had improperly granted a concession to Canada’s WTO ambassador to mislead the public through the final COOL rule. R-CALF USA wrote that the improper concession resulted in a final COOL rule that allowed meat products produced exclusively from a USA animal to nevertheless bear an inaccurate label indicating it was a product of more than one country, such as a product of Canada, Mexico and the United States. R-CALF USA urged USDA to immediately initiate a rulemaking to modify the final COOL rule so it would provide accurate origin information to consumers.
USDA took no action on R-CALF USA’s complaint or its request for a rulemaking.
On August 22, 2012, R-CALF USA made a second formal request to USDA to initiate a new rulemaking not only to correct the improper labeling of exclusively USA products with a mixed-country label, but also to disallow countries to be listed on a ground beef label when the product does not contain meat from the listed countries and to expand the list of products covered by the COOL regulations to include products that undergo minor processing.
On January 31, 2013, a bipartisan group of 31 Senators, led by Senators Jon Tester (D-Mont.), Mike Enzi (R-Wyo.), Tim Johnson, (D-S.D.), and Charles Grassley (R-Iowa), wrote USDA and USTR a joint letter urging the two agencies to make a regulatory fix to COOL by opening a new rulemaking that would provide "accurate information about the origin of all meat cuts to consumers."
"After pushing for a rulemaking for nearly four years, we are pleased that USDA has finally initiated a new COOL rulemaking by sending a proposed COOL rule to the OMB for review," said Mike Schultz, R-CALF USA Region VI Director and COOL Committee Chair.
Schultz added, "While we don’t believe the WTO has any authority to infringe on our national sovereignty by directing us to change our constitutionally-passed COOL law and regulations, we have independently recognized for many years that USDA’s COOL rule improperly allows multinational meatpackers to misinform U.S. consumers. And, that must be fixed."
Schultz said he does not know what provisions USDA has included in its proposed COOL rule but he hopes the rulemaking process will at least provide the opportunity to improve the accuracy of information that COOL provides to consumers.
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R-CALF USA (Ranchers-Cattlemen Action Legal Fund, United Stockgrowers of America) is a national, nonprofit organization dedicated to ensuring the continued profitability and viability of the U.S. cattle industry. For more information, visit www.r-calfusa.com or, call 406-252-2516.