Canada rips USDA’s plan for more specific COOL labels

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Canadian officials and U.S. packers warn the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s new proposal for even more specific country-of-origin labelling (COOL) on meat will only make a bad rule worse.

Racing to bring its mandatory COOL law into compliance with critical World Trade Organization rulings before the WTO’s May 23 deadline, USDA issued a proposed new COOL rule for display in the March 11 edition of the U.S. government’s Federal Register, calling for public comment by April 11.

The proposed rule would change COOL’s labelling provisions for muscle cuts of beef, lamb, chicken, goat, pork and veal, instead requiring a package label’s origin designations to include information about where each of the meat’s production steps occurred.

Where the current COOL regulations would allow “Product of the U.S.” labels only on cuts from animals born, raised, and slaughtered in the U.S., the new rule would allow such cuts’ labels to read “Born, Raised, and Slaughtered in the U.S.”

For example, if an animal is born in Canada, but raised in both Canada and the U.S. before slaughter, the shortest label allowed under the new rule would read “Born in Canada, Raised and Slaughtered in the U.S.”

“USDA expects that these changes will improve the overall operation of the program and also bring the current mandatory COOL requirements into compliance with U.S. international trade obligations,” U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a release.

Agriculture Minister Gerry Ritz doesn’t buy it. “We do not believe that the proposed changes will bring the U.S. into compliance with its WTO obligations,” he said in a statement.

USDA’s proposed changes, he said, “will increase the discrimination against exports of cattle and hogs from Canada and increase damages to Canadian industry.”

The Canadian Cattlemen’s Association said the proposed rule, by adding labelling requirements and “eliminating some of the existing mitigating flexibility,” will “significantly increas(e) the costs of compliance.”

The net result, the CCA said, is “a rule that not only does not comply with the WTO Appellate Body’s findings but will also violate WTO provisions not previously ruled upon.”

USDA appears set to rush the rule through with a relatively quick comment period “in order to implement something, regardless of how ill conceived,” before the WTO’s May 23 deadline, the CCA said.

“This tactic not only increases the discrimination against imported livestock, but also creates additional process and delay at the WTO.”

Ritz reiterated Friday that the Canadian government “will consider all options, including retaliatory measures, should the U.S. not achieve compliance by May 23.”

Patrick Boyle, president of the American Meat Institute, a U.S. meat packers’ body, said in a separate statement Friday that, “Only the (U.S.) government could take a costly, cumbersome rule like mandatory (COOL) and make it worse even as it claims to ‘fix it.’”

USDA’s proposed new rule, Boyle said, is “even more onerous, disruptive and expensive than the current regulation implemented in 2009. Complying with this proposal, should it become mandatory, will create more excessive costs that will be passed on to (U.S.) consumers.”

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