After six years in political limbo, mandatory country-of-origin labeling for retail beef products will become law this fall. First appearing in the 2002 Farm Bill, the requirement suffered through disputes and delays before emerging again, in modified form, in the 2007 version of the bill.

As of mid-July, says Oklahoma State University Extension livestock marketing specialist Derrell Peel, the industry was waiting for USDA to issue interim final rules for the country-of-origin-labeling law for beef. Statements from the Agricultural Marketing Service and Agriculture Secretary Ed Schafer indicate, though, that the agency will issue the rules in time to initiate mandatory COOL requirements at retail by the Oct. 1 date specified in the 2007 Farm Bill.

Phasing in

USDA has indicated that it will allow retailers some time to adjust. In a June 25 news conference, Schafer said, “We are on track to see this legislation complete by Oct. 1, and when it actually gets published, I don’t know. And the grace period, yes, we are looking at a similar implementation rate as we did with the shellfish. And so as this goes into effect, we’re going to be working with the retailers out there to look at this labeling.”

Addressing a follow-up question regarding the six-month grace period, Schafer said that although USDA will not be “the labeling police” during the first six months, the agency wants retailers to begin phasing the program in immediately, working toward full compliance within six months.

Retailers eventually will need to comply fully with COOL regulations, labeling meat in one of four categories:

  • Product of the United States,
  • Multiple countries of origin (e.g., ground beef),
  • Animals imported for immediate slaughter, or
  • Imported finished products to be sold at retail.
  • Loose ends

Peel stresses that the legislation, and whatever final rules AMS issues, apply to retailers. We do not know specifically what recordkeeping requirements retailers will eventually pass down the chain to packers, feedyards, stockers or cow-calf producers.

According to the American Meat Institute, AMS has indicated that the initiating supplier  —  meaning the packer  —  either must have the records in its possession or have access to records of the livestock supplier that substantiate the country of origin of the meat product at issue.    

Ashby Green, DVM, NCBA’s vice president for producer education, says NCBA and other organizations have faced a dilemma as members ask what to expect from COOL. Everyone knows it is coming, and compliance will require some action on the part of producers. But in the absence of a final rule from USDA, advice on how to prepare needs to remain fairly general.

NCBA and other agricultural groups generally were pleased that Congress, in preparing the 2007 Farm Bill, adjusted the COOL provisions to limit recordkeeping requirements to documents used “in the normal conduct of business” to verify origin, and “grandfathers” animals born or imported before July 15, 2008, as U.S. origin.

Asked about a grandfather clause for existing cattle during the June news conference, Secretary Schafer said, “I suppose that depends whether it comes before Oct. 1 or after Oct. 1, but we’re going to implement the law, and producers as well as retailers are going to be required to follow this labeling rule. And come Oct. 1, those calves that come on the ground are going to have to be labeled.”

That means that this year’s fall-born calves possibly, and next spring’s calves almost certainly, will be subject to the new labeling law. Green says producers up and down the production chain need to maintain an auditable paper trail, allowing traceability back to the ranch of origin. It does not need to be a complex, computerized database. It can be handwritten calf records, but you need something.

Paper trail

Peel says an affidavit that verifies the existence of records should allow producers to comply as they market cattle. He emphasizes the part about the “existence of records.” An affidavit claiming the cattle were born in the United States probably will not suffice. It needs to specify that the producer could, if asked, produce actual records demonstrating the origin of the cattle.

Those records will not need to be extensive, complicated or linked to individual animal identification. Most cow-calf producers, Peel says, either have or could get the records they need. A producer with calving records for 100 cows, who goes to market with 95 calves, could supply a valid affidavit verifying the origin of the calves.

Documenting culled breeding animals could become a problem down the road, Peel says. Producers should keep records on replacement heifers and secure the needed documentation on purchased females or bulls. Current breeding stock animals likely will fall under the “grandfather clause,” but future additions will need documentation.

While the documentation process should be fairly simple for cow-calf producers, Peel says compliance could become more complicated through later production stages. Stocker operators in particular, he explains, might face challenges in maintaining a paper trail on all their cattle.

These producers frequently purchase small groups of calves, co-mingle them with others and further sort the larger groups for management and marketing. Peel notes that individual animal identification is not necessarily required for compliance with COOL, but it might be the best bet for stocker operators.

It could turn out that group/lot identification will suffice, and that stocker operators could collect affidavits on purchased cattle, co-mingle and sort them into different marketing groups, and supply a single affidavit on each group to verify that all the cattle had documented origin at the time of purchase.

Stocker operators who run some imported calves will need to maintain identification and records showing they are not co-mingled or marketed with calves of U.S. origin.

Feedyards, even though they frequently deal with co-mingled cattle, typically purchase them in large groups and manage them in those same groups through the finishing period; so a set of affidavits accompanying the group as they enter the feedyard could follow them out when the pen is sold for slaughter.

In any case, Peel says, cattle buyers will need to request an affidavit for each group of cattle they purchase, and auction facilities will need to develop a system for managing the documentation to assure transfer from seller to buyer.

NAIS and COOL

Although unpopular in some circles, participation in the National Animal Identification System could expedite COOL compliance for producers. Green says, for example, that premises registration through NAIS is a first step toward linking cattle with their ranch of origin.

Speaking at last year’s Animal ID Info Expo, Bruce Knight, USDA’s under-secretary for marketing and regulatory programs, stressed that while NAIS is an animal-health program and COOL is a marketing issue, the two are related in terms of how consumers perceive the safety and value of meat products. It is USDA’s intention, he said, that any animal participating in the NAIS system will be COOL compliant.