USDA Releases Interim Final Rule for Mandatory COOL

12:00AM Jul 29, 2008
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One unknown is how Canada will react to new labels

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USDA on Monday issued a 233-page interim final rule for mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL), meeting the end-of-July timeline that USDA Undersecretary Bruce Knight told me in an interview several months ago.

The rule will be published in the Federal Register on Friday, Aug. 1. Public comments on the rule will be accepted for 60 days following publication. Comments should be submitted at

COOL was first instituted by the 2002 Farm Bill but Congress delayed implementation of the provision several times. The 2008 Farm Bill added several commodities that would fall under the regulations. COOL will go into effect on Sept. 30, 2008.

Mandatory COOL requires retailers to notify their customers of the country of origin of beef (including veal), lamb, pork, chicken, goat, wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish, perishable agricultural commodities, peanuts, pecans, ginseng, and macadamia nuts.

Food service establishments are specifically exempted as are covered commodities that are ingredients in a processed food item. In addition, the law specifically outlines the criteria a covered commodity must meet to bear a "United States country of origin" designation.

Link to the rule:

The interim final rule contains definitions, the requirements for consumer notification and product marking, and the recordkeeping responsibilities of both retailers and suppliers for covered commodities. The provisions do not affect the regulatory requirements for fish and shellfish that were published in the October 5, 2004, Federal Register.

As for the requirements for labeling ground meat products, which often contain raw material sources from multiple countries, the 2008 Farm Bill specifies that the notice of country of origin for ground beef, ground lamb, ground pork, ground goat, and ground chicken shall include a list of all of the countries of origin contained therein or reasonably contained therein. The interim final provides that when a raw material from a specific origin is not in a processor’s inventory for more than 60 days, the country shall no longer be included as a possible country of origin.

The requirements of the rule do not apply to covered commodities produced or packaged before September 30, 2008.

Education outreach. In addition, during the six month period following the effective date of the regulation, USDA's Ag Marketing Service (AMS) will conduct an industry education and outreach program concerning the provisions and requirements of this rule. AMS has determined that this allocation of enforcement resources will ensure that the rule is effectively and rationally implemented.

Slaughter facilities that slaughter animals that are part of a National Animal Identification System (NAIS) compliant system or other recognized official identification system (e.g., Canadian official system, Mexico official system) may also rely on the presence of an official ear tag and/or the presence of any accompanying animal markings (i.e., “Can”, “M”), as applicable, on which to base their origin claims.

This provision also applies to animals officially identified as a group lot.

For retailers, records and other documentary evidence relied upon at the point of sale by the retailer to establish a covered commodity’s country(ies) of origin must be maintained for one year from the date the origin declaration is made at retail and, upon request, provided to any duly authorized representatives of USDA within 5 business days of the request.

For pre-labeled products, the label itself is sufficient evidence on which the retailer may rely to establish a product’s origin.

The 2008 Farm Bill modified the enforcement provisions for both retailers and suppliers. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, civil penalties up to $10,000 per violation were specified for retailers and suppliers. Under the 2008 Farm Bill, civil penalties have been reduced to up to $1,000 for each violation. In addition, the 2008 Farm Bill specifies that the Secretary must provide retailers and suppliers with a 30-day period during which the retailer or supplier can take the necessary steps to comply with the law after receiving notice from the Secretary. Under the 2002 Farm Bill, only retailers were provided with this 30-day period.

In addition, the 2008 Farm Bill states that the Secretary may fine a retailer or supplier, after providing notice and an opportunity for a hearing, only if the retailer or supplier has not made a good faith effort to comply with the law and continue to willfully violate the law. The law also encourages the Secretary to enter into partnerships with States with enforcement infrastructure to the extent possible to assist in the program’s administration.

Of note, the definition of “United States country of origin” has been modified. Under the interim final rule, beef, pork, lamb, chicken, and goat derived from animals present in the U.S. on or before July 15, 2008, and once present in the U.S., remained continuously in the U.S., are considered U.S. origin.

The 2002 Farm Bill and the October 30, 2003, proposed rule, did not contain such a provision.

USDA said this provision will help address the issue of the lack of origin information on some animals currently residing in the United States.

The 2008 Farm Bill made changes to the recordkeeping provisions. Specifically, the 2008 Farm Bill states that records maintained in the course of the normal conduct of the business of such person, including animal health papers, import or customs documents, or producer affidavits, may serve as verification.

Under the 2008 Farm Bill, the Secretary is prohibited from requiring the maintenance of additional records other than those maintained in the normal conduct of business. In addition to the changes made as a result of the 2008 Farm Bill, other changes have been made to reduce the recordkeeping burden.

The 2008 Farm Bill created several new types of label categories intended to facilitate and simplify compliance for the meat and poultry industries and for others. For example, COOL continues to limit use of the U.S. country of origin for covered meats only to items from animals that were exclusively born, raised, or slaughtered in the U.S., with a narrow exception for those animals present here before July 15, 2008.

For multiple countries of origin, retailers may designate such meat products as being from all of the countries in which the animals may have been born, raised, or slaughtered. For meat from animals imported for immediate slaughter, the retailer must cite both the exporting country and the United States. Products from animals not born, raised, or slaughtered in the U.S. must designate the country of origin.

Comments: This topic has been a battle ground for years among proponents and opponents. The 2008 Farm Bill hopefully added enough flexibility to make the program workable and not too expensive to implement.

As for as reaction, the initial unknown is how Canada will react to the new labeling and other provisions, as officials from that country have previously noted anxiety about the changes.

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