National Cattlemen’s Beef Association (NCBA) President Scott George, a Cody, Wyo. dairy and cattle producer, quickly responded to the just-issued rule regarding the Mandatory Country of Origin Labeling rule (MCOOL). His comments were in very close alignment with statements from the North American Meat Association and the American Meat Institute. 

Meat industry associations quick to attack the new MCOOL rule“We are deeply disappointed with this short-sighted action by the USDA,” Mr. George said in a press release. “Our largest trading partners have already said that these provisions will not bring the United States into compliance with our WTO obligations and will result in increased discrimination against imported products and in turn retaliatory tariffs or other authorized trade sanctions.

“As we said in comments submitted to USDA, ‘any retaliation against U.S. beef would be devastating for our producers.’ While trying to make an untenable mandate fit with our international trade obligations, USDA chose to set up U.S. cattle producers for financial losses,” he said in the release. “Moreover, this rule will place a greater record-keeping burden on producers, feeders and processors through the born, raised and harvested label.”

“As cattlemen and women, we do not oppose voluntary labeling as a marketing tool to distinguish product and add value. However, USDA is not the entity that we want marketing beef, and on its face, a label that says ‘harvested’ is unappealing to both consumers and cattle producers.”

Jeremy Russell, NAMA directory of communications and government relations, said, “This Final Rule is not significantly different from the Proposed Rule. It will exacerbate costs, particularly for independent packers that need to commingle animals to run their plants near capacity. And it won’t appease the World Trade Organization concerns.”
 
Russell noted that Canada and Mexico successfully argued that the current COOL regime is not consistent with the WTO rules and the new rule appears to be in even greater conflict with those same rules.  He said the rule requires further discrimination against product derived from livestock born outside the U.S., even when they are raised here.

NAMA will continue to pursue means to avoid the significant economic and legal fallout that this injurious rule creates.

The AMI agreed with the NAMA position, headlining its press release this way:  “Burdensome Country-of-Origin Labeling Rule Will Not Satisfy WTO or Trading Partners, But Will Harm U.S. Agriculture.”

During a quickly organized press conference, AMI vice president of regulatory affairs Mark Dopp expressed the organization’s “extreme disappointment” that the AMS moved ahead with the ruling, ignoring the lengthy comments about the adverse effects of the policy.  

“Despite a massive outpouring of concern from affected companies and major trading partners, (it) is incomprehensible and recklessly disregards the potential adverse retaliatory trade responses from Canada and Mexico,” he said.   

With no health or public welfare issues at stake, Dopp is especially upset with the speed of which the AMS regulation will be implemented.  It goes into effect immediately after it’s published in the Federal Register which he said could happen as early as tomorrow, certainly no later than Monday.

“It is incomprehensible that USDA would finalize a controversial rule that stands to harm American agriculture, when comments on the proposal made clear how deeply and negatively it will impact U.S. meat companies and livestock producers. This rubber stamping of the proposal begs the question of the integrity of the process: Many people spoke, but no one at USDA listened,” Dopp said. 

 “There is a virtual certainty that several meat-packing establishments will ultimately close because of the costs they will be forced to incur in order to implement the proposal’s requirements” said Dopp, emphasizing that statement by reading a plea from the comments section to “save my job.”

“In effect, the agency is picking winners and losers in the marketplace in order to provide information to consumers that recent research shows they care little about and do not wish to pay for,” AMI said.

Operations on the northern and southern borders would be impacted most severely because their businesses are premised on free trade in meat and livestock across international borders, and the new rule will have a particularly burdensome impact on them in terms of segregation and labeling, which suggests that the U.S. government is essentially picking winners and losers in the international marketplace.

The USDA Agricultural Marketing Service Final Rule for mandatory Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) program is online at http://www.ams.usda.gov/AMSv1.0/COOL

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of Chuck Jolley, a veteran food industry journalist and columnist.