Beef jobs at stake, as administration prepares contentious meat labeling regs

The White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) has completed its review proposed regulations designed 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 no action is taken, the two countries – the U.S. top two meat trading partners – could impose retaliatory tariffs against American meat producers and packers.

The dispute centers on country-of-origin labeling rules that became mandatory in the U.S. in 2009. 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. 

Industry groups, including the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA), say the COOL regulations have forced U.S. meat packers to take steps to segregate the products, driving up costs. The NCBA opposes the rules altogether, saying they are threatening lucrative trade relationships with the United States’ neighbors to the north and south.

Canada and Mexico 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.

Within the U.S., there are differing opinions about the steps that should be taken to avoid that scenario. Proponents of the COOL regulations, including the U.S. Cattlemen’s Association and multiple consumer groups, commissioned a legal brief outlining a proposal to modify the rules in a way that would lead to U.S. compliance.

The groups took their case directly to the White House, meeting with officials at the OMB on Feb. 27, according to agency records. The following day, an industry representative had a similar meeting at the OMB and presented research showing that the regulations would lead to reduced imports.

The reductions would lead to the loss of an estimated 5,256 jobs associated with processing cattle and 3,774 jobs associated with processing hogs, according to the research.

Upon the proposed rule’s issuance, it will be subject to further comment from both sides of the debate and members of the public before it is finalized.