Contentious meat-labeling rule moves to White House

At issue are federal country-of-origin labeling rules that became mandatory in the United States in 2009, after years of debate. Known as COOL, the program is meant to give consumers more information about the food they eat by requiring labels on packaging that show where certain cuts of meat came from. 

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The rules have forced U.S. meat packers to take steps to segregate the products, driving up costs. The NCBA opposes the rules, saying they are threatening trade relationships with Canada and Mexico that each amount to $1 billion annually.

The two countries challenged the rules. Ultimately an appellate body within the WTO ruled in their favor, ordering that the U.S. come into compliance by May 23, or face possible sanctions.

The NCBA would just as soon do away with the labels, and said Congress — not the administration — should act to resolve the issue.

“It is our opinion that there is no regulatory change that can be made that will satisfy Canada, Mexico or the WTO,” Woodall said.

Proponents of the COOL policy — farm and cattle industry groups, along with consumer watchdogs — argue the WTO ruling does not altogether ban labeling. Rather, they contend that the adjustments to the current regulation would remedy the issue, while allowing COOL to continue.

“From our perspective, people want to know where their food is from,” said Jess Peterson, executive vice president of the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association.

The group, which represents U.S. cattle producers, is part of a coalition of farm and consumer protection groups that issued a legal paper this week, outlining a proposal to amend the current COOL regulations.

Peterson said he and other representatives of the coalition have met with administration officials, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, to make their pitch.

Meanwhile, he said, opponents of the rule have done nothing to find a solution, apart from dropping the regulation.

“It’s been crickets on the other side,” he said.

In recent days, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) submitted a draft rule on COOL to the White House’s Office of Management and Budget. Administration officials declined to discuss its contents, but said both sides of the debate would have every chance to weigh in once it is published.

“All interested parties will have an opportunity to comment on any proposed regulatory action,” said Samuel Jones-Ellard, spokesman for USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service.

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