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USDA Alters Stance on Country-of-Origin Labeling (COOL)

00:00AM Sep 29, 2008

via a special arrangement with Informa Economics, Inc.

USDA now says meat labels should be origin-specific

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.

Meatpackers should list the source of their products as much as possible and not abuse the flexibility of the country-of-origin labeling (COOL) law for meat and meat products that takes effect this week, USDA officials said on Friday, according to Reuters.

A growing concern: Farm-state lawmakers and major farm groups said they feared meat companies would label beef as coming from a combination of nations even if it is solely from U.S. farms and ranches. They said a Sept. 11 guidance paper by USDA suggested an open-ended ability to use mixed-origin label, such as Product of the United States, Canada and Mexico, on solely U.S. meat.

A letter from 31 U.S. Senators, including Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama (D-Ill.), said USDA was not implementing the law as Congress intended. They asked USDA to make necessary changes before labels become mandatory on Tuesday.

The groups and their concerns. The senators, the National Farmers Union, the American Farm Bureau Federation and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association all said they were worried that meatpackers and will lump U.S.-born, raised and slaughtered meat into a category for meat from multiple countries rather than label it as U.S. meat.

The labeling law applies to packages of beef, chicken, lamb, pork and goat meat sold in grocery stores as well as nuts and fruits and vegetables.

The lawmakers also expressed concern that USDA was excluding some processed foods from having a label when consumers would expect one. For example, they noted, cooked items such as a whole chicken would be a processed food that did not require a label but a whole raw chicken would.

USDA changed the document on Friday to give a new answer to the question whether processors could put a mixed-origin label on meat products from livestock born, raised and slaughtered in the United States.

"Similar to retailers and intermediary suppliers, retailers are permitted to market U.S.-produced meat under a mixed origin label (e.g., Product of U.S., Canada and Mexico) if they are commingled with meat of mixed origin," said the updated advice. "That is, if a retailer further processes meat at the store and the resulting package includes meat of both U.S. origin and mixed origin, (e.g., Product of U.S., Canada and Mexico), the origin declaration can read Product of U.S., Canada and Mexico."

USDA is accepting comments through Tuesday on interim rules for the program and this will be followed by a a six-month education period. A final set of rules will eventually be released.

Comments: The latest problem on this topic began during a USDA and industry stakeholder meeting in Kansas City on Aug. 26, when it became clear that USDA at that time was going to allow wide flexibility regarding Label 2. Then, after several U.S. meat processing companies made it clear they would use that flexibility in their labeling, farm-state lawmakers and major farm groups began protesting.

House Ag Committee Chairman Collin Peterson (D-Minn.) called meat industry lobbyists into a meeting and made it clear legislation could be forthcoming that would correct the gap he and others felt was going to be manipulated.

Legislation on this matter would come if the resulting data following implementation of COOL shows such legislation is needed, congressional sources advise.

NOTE: This column is copyrighted material, therefore reproduction or retransmission is prohibited under U.S. copyright laws.