‘Slaughtered in the USA’: Labeling rule burns meat industry

A meat industry already imperiled by federal budget cuts is lashing back at the Obama administration following the release of new proposed labeling regulations seen as costly and unnecessarily onerous.

The new regulations, to be published Monday for public consideration, are meant to resolve last year’s finding by the World Trade Organization (WTO) that U.S. rules give American meat products an unfair advantage over those from Canada and Mexico. If the WTO violation is not remedied by May 23, America’s top two meat-trading partners could impose damaging sanctions in the form of tariffs against U.S. meat producers and packers.

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The new rules amend country-of-origin labeling (COOL) rules enacted in 2009 to better inform consumers about where their food comes from. Industry groups oppose the rules because they have forced U.S. meat packers to take steps to segregate the products, driving up costs.

In light of the WTO ruling, the groups urged the government to scrap the rules altogether, through congressional action if necessary.

Drafted by the Agriculture Marketing Service (AMS), an arm of the U.S.  Department of Agriculture (USDA), the new regulations take the opposite tack, adding requirements that labels include “information about where each of the production steps (i.e., born, raised, slaughtered) occurred,” according to AMS.

The proposed rule would also remove the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts.

“USDA expects that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the current mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said.

The American Meat Institute (AMI) did not concur.

“Only the government could take a costly, cumbersome rule like mandatory country-of-origin labeling (COOL) and make it worse even as it claims to ‘fix it,’ " AMI president J. Patrick Boyle said in a statement decrying the proposal.

Government-wide federal spending cuts known as the sequester are already threatening to hit the meat industry. Vilsack has warned that federal meat inspectors would be furloughed if Congress doesn’t restore or replace the $85 billion cuts. Meat packing facilities cannot operate without inspectors.
That proposed rule would compound the threat, according to the industry. Complying with the new regulations would bring costs that would ultimately be passed on to consumers, Boyle said.

“An absurd example of one of the proposed changes is this: a plant or grocery retailer that currently labels its product, ‘Product of the U.S.’ would now have to change the labels on its packages to read, ‘Born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.,’” he observed.

Beginning Monday, the public and interested parties will have 30 days to comment. AMS must consider all comments before the rule is finalized.