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New USDA Secretary continues his activist
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Although USDA is not officially altering
the proposed final rule for implementation of mandatory country-of-origin
labeling (MCOOL) for meat and meat products, USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack
said Tuesday that he will ask U.S. meatpackers to voluntarily follow stricter
guidelines for new package labels to directly specify the meat/product's
country of origin. If the voluntary plan is not followed, the Obama administration
will write new rules.
Clearer labels. The Associated Press reported
that according to those on a telephone call with Vilsack on Tuesday,
including Jean Halloran of Consumers Union and Patty Lovera of Food
and Water Watch, Vilsack said he would like to see labels that would
give consumers a clearer idea about the origin of the animal or food.
Vilsack also said the law should cover more foods, Halloran
and Lovera said, according to the Associated Press account.
Many foods that are defined as "processed" — roasted
peanuts, for example, or cured bacon — are exempt from the law,
but Vilsack proposed narrowing that definition. We are told a lot of
the focus will be on produce – particularly bagged products. Lovera
told the AP that said she was encouraged by the proposals,
which Vilsack is expected to lay out in a letter to the meat industry
The Obama administration's changes could cause problems with
the country's North American neighbors. Both Mexico and Canada
have protested the labeling law in a complaint to the World Trade Organization
(WTO), with Canada, at least for now, shelving its complaint after the
Bush administration issued flexibility in its
proposed rule. Obama is scheduled to visit Canada on Thursday.
Obama's trip to Canada forced Vilsack's
interpretation/decision making. In an interview with CongressDaily
on Tuesday, Vilsack said that the voluntary request to U.S. meatpackers
was being made in preparation for President Obama's trip to Canada Thursday.
CongressDaily reported that Vilsack said Obama expects to be
asked about meat labeling. The U.S. would not be a "good friend"
if Obama were to say nothing about the labeling issue and then impose
a stricter regime, Vilsack explained.
Importantly, Vilsack said any decisions about the trade implications
of the labeling program would be made by Obama himself. The
Office of the U.S. Trade Representative "could come to the president
and say this law is creating issues," Vilsack said. "But the
president will decide whether to propose changes."
In an interesting development, Vilsack told CongressDaily
that under his interpretation of the law, Congress believes "American
consumers need to know and should know when something is an all-American
product," and that the Bush administration rule did not carry out
A move only a lawyer can come up with. Vilsack said
he did not initiate a new round of rulemaking because he did not want
"a vacuum that would be created by the process."
The Bush rule allowed meat processors to co-mingle ground meat
that has been processed within 60 days, but Vilsack told CongressDaily
that he has also asked the meat processors to reduce the number of days
Comments: Vilsack's “interpretation”
of Congress' intent sets a precedent for this USDA – if groups want
policy changes, they can now urge Vilsack to issue an interpretation.
This reminds me somewhat of the criticism former President George Bush
received from Democratic members of Congress when the president issued
interpretative statements following his signing of legislation into law.
I understand that Vilsack's approach on this matter brought spirited debate
among some career people at USDA.
It will be interesting to see how Canada reacts to
the latest developments on MCOOL. On Tuesday, Canada said it stands
ready to revive a trade complaint against the U.S. should Washington
reinstate country-of-origin meat labeling rules that Ottawa considers
protectionist, Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz said. "Should the
Obama administration continue on with protectionism and country-of-origin
labeling, we will then reignite our WTO challenge," Ritz said.
Canada agreed to shelve its WTO complaint last month after the government
of George Bush revised US rules to allow greater flexibility on labeling
of meat. It remains to be seen whether Canada's position will change
based on Vilsack's changes.
Meanwhile, Vilsack's mention of the USTR office is interesting
because our sources say it was USTR officials in the Bush administration
who urged the MCOOL flexibility that Vilsack now wants to alter via
the “voluntary” request to meatpackers.
As for the reaction from U.S. meatpackers, they await
the official delivery of Vilsack's letter. We understand the meatpackers
will take a while to review the letter and the matter, with some sources
suggesting Vilsack's “voluntary” approach may not be followed,
and that it could take three to four months before that is known. If
so, Vilsack said he would follow up with official rule changes.
Meatpackers were doing everything they could to follow the
proposed rules and regulations. Many have already printed labels
at some expense. One industry source told me, “This issue is over
a small amount of Canadian cattle for direct slaughter in the U.S. because
most of the Canadian cattle coming to the US are feeder cattle, finished
in the US and slaughtered.”
Also, extending the rules to processed meats would significantly
increase the cost for the industries involved. I wonder if
Vilsack even asked about the economic impact of this potential change.
The law of unintended consequences will follow -- interpretation notwithstanding.
While MCOOL supporters were privy to a conference call on the
matter yesterday, and a few meatpackers, a general press conference
on the matter previously scheduled for today was postponed to a later
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