It’s been more than a decade since mandatory country of origin labeling (COOL) for meat products turned up in the 2002 Farm Bill, and the issue remains as contentious as ever. The latest round in the COOL debate began last week, when USDA issued a new proposed rule for meat labeling, intended to strengthen the policy and bring it into compliance with a World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling.

After numerous delays (see COOL timeline below), the interim final rule for meat labeling became effective in September 2008. Soon after, Canada and Mexico filed complaints with the WTO claiming the law violated existing trade agreements and provided less favorable treatment to imported cattle and hogs. The WTO ruled against the United States, which appealed and lost, leaving USDA with a May 23, 2013, to bring the COOL rule into compliance with the WTO ruling.

Last Friday, USDA announced its proposed rule, which will be subject to public comments until April 11, 2013.

The proposed rule would require labels on muscle cuts of beef and other meats to specify where the animal was born, raised and slaughtered, and would remove the allowance for commingling of muscle cuts.

The new proposed rule has reignited the pro and con arguments over COOL that have persisted for the past decade. Proponents of mandatory COOL believe labeling will provide a competitive advantage for domestically produced meat and satisfy consumer demand for source information. Opponents say mandatory COOL simply adds costs and paperwork across the production chain without providing any tangible benefit to consumers or higher prices for U.S. producers.

“The proposed rule is even more onerous, disruptive and expensive than the current regulation implemented in 2009,” says American Meat Institute president J. Patrick Boyle. “Complying with this proposal, should it become mandatory, will create more excessive costs that will be passed onto consumers.  An absurd example of one of the proposed changes is this: a plant or grocery retailer that currently labels its product, “Product of the U.S.” would now have to change the labels on its packages to read, “Born, raised and slaughtered in the U.S.

“The bottom line: mandatory country-of-origin labeling is conceptually flawed, in our view and in the eyes of our trading partners. The anti-free trade objectives of this labeling scheme’s proponents are no secret.  Requiring us now to provide even more information at a greater cost when evidence shows consumers, by and large, are not reading the current country-of-origin information is an ill-conceived public policy option.”

NCBA also opposes the proposed rule. “The proposed amendments will only further hinder our trading relationships with our partners, raise the cost of beef for consumers and result in retaliatory tariffs being placed on our export products,” says NCBA president Scott George. “The requirement that all products sold at retail be labeled with information noting the birth, raising and slaughter will place additional recordkeeping burdens on processors and retailers, contrary to the administration’s assertion. Moreover, this combined with the elimination of the ability to comingle muscle cuts, will only further add to the costs of processing non-US born, raised and slaughtered products.”
R-CALF USA on the other hand, has traditionally supported mandatory COOL and pushed for tougher labeling laws. In November 2012, the group filed an amended lawsuit alleging the provisions in the COOL rule that currently allow meat derived exclusively from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S. to be mislabeled with a multiple-country label is unlawful.

"If the Secretary finalizes this proposed COOL rule, many of our concerns expressed in our lawsuit will be addressed," said R-CALF USA CEO Bill Bullard adding, "It's just too bad the Secretary allowed Canada, Mexico and the domestic meatpacking and meat retailing industry to prevent him from doing what he knew was the right thing to do four years ago."

"We support this proposed rule and encourage every consumer to send comments to USDA before the April 11, 2013 deadline to explain the value that COOL information is to them when they are purchasing meat for their families," concluded Bullard.

COOL timeline

2002 – The 2002 Farm Bill amended the Agricultural Marketing Act of 1946 to require retailers to notify their customers of the origin of covered commodities. Covered commodities included muscle cuts of beef.

2004 –Congress delays implementation of mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2006.

2005 – Interim final rule for mandatory COOL for fish and shellfish became effective on April 4.

2006 – Congress again delayed mandatory COOL for all covered commodities except wild and farm-raised fish and shellfish until September 30, 2008,

August 1, 2008 – USDA publishes interim final rule for the remaining covered commodities.

September 30, 2008 – Interim final rule takes effect.

December 1, 2008 – Canada files complaint with the WTO over U.S. COOL regulations. Mexico joins in the complaint on December 12.

January 15, 2009 – USDA publishes final COOL rule, to become effective in 60 days.

March 16, 2009 – Final COOL regulations became effective.

November 18, 2011 – The WTO rules in favor of Canada and Mexico in their complaint against U.S. COOL rules. 

March 23, 2012 – The United States appeals the ruling.

June 29, 2012 – The Appellate Body of the WTO affirms the earlier ruling.

March 11, 2013 – The USDA publishes its new proposed rule in the Federal Register.

April 13, 2013 – Deadline for public comments on the proposed rule.

May 23, 2013 – Deadline for United States to bring COOL rules into compliance with WTO ruling.

Learn more at USDA’s COOL website.